The Impact of the Fukushima disaster in the UK

The Impact of the Fukushima disaster in the UK

The Impact of the Fukushima disaster in the UK

Sizewell B in Suffolk, England it the only single pressurised water reactor in the UK and the newest nuclear power station.
Picture: John Brodrick. Licence: Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0. Original: Wikimedia Commons.

April 19, 2011
Steve Thomas
1. Background

Major nuclear events and policy announcements have never led to mass protests in the UK. This may be in part due to: cultural factors; the record that few announcements have been turned into new facilities; and the unique nature of the UK’s reactors, only one of which uses a design built elsewhere. This third factor has meant that major accidents such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be portrayed as having no relevance to the UK. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Fukushima disaster is likely to have a profound effect on the scale and timing of the new British nuclear programme. In this note, we look at the main actors and their responses in the first two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami.

2. The public

While there are national organisations, such as Greenpeace (1), Friends of the Earth (2) and the Green Party, they have limited resources. The period of the effective moratorium on new nuclear build from 1990-2005 led to a sharp decline in their capabilities in the nuclear sector. Friends of the Earth do not have a major campaign on nuclear power.
There are a number of local organisations at potential sites for new facilities. These include:

  • The Shutdown Sizewell Campaign; (3)
  • Blackwater against New Nuclear Group - BANNG (Bradwell site);
  • Shepperdine Against Nuclear Energy - SANE (Oldbury site); (4)
  • Stop Hinkley; (5)
  • Kent Against a Radioactive Environment – KARE (Dungeness site); (6)

An opinion poll taken in the week after the earthquake found a significant reduction in support for nuclear power. 37 per cent  of those polled said they are now more likely to oppose new nuclear build and only 16 per cent saying they are more likely to support it. 35 per cent either strongly or slightly support a programme to replace the UK's existing reactors, with 28 per cent either strongly or slightly opposed. In November 2010, the figures were 47 per cent in favour of nuclear new build, with 19 per cent against. (7)

3. The political parties

The two major parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have always had divisions on nuclear power although the majority has always been in favour of nuclear. This is unlikely to change. The third party, the Liberal-Democrats campaigned in the May 2010 General Election on an anti-nuclear position. However, their position seemed to change with the setting up of a coalition government with the Conservative Party. The formal agreement stated: (8)

„Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new National Planning Statement), and also provided that they receive no public subsidy. We will implement a process allowing the Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while permitting the Government to bring forward the National Planning Statement for ratification by Parliament so that new nuclear construction becomes possible. This process will involve: the Government completing the drafting of a national planning statement and putting it before Parliament; specific agreement that a Liberal Democrat spokesperson will speak against the Planning Statement, but that Liberal Democrat MPs will abstain; and clarity that this will not be regarded as an issue of confidence.”

A Liberal Democrat, Chris Huhne, was given the post of Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Energy Minister), but he has provided unwavering support for the nuclear programme and the previous government’s position that nuclear power would be given no subsidies has clearly been relaxed to, effectively, any nuclear subsidies should also be available to renewable sources. (9

On March 17, 2011, Huhne announced that he had asked the UK nuclear regulatory authorities, the Nuclear Directorate of the Health & Safety Commission (HSE), to produce a report on the implications of the earthquake and tsunami for the UK nuclear industry. An interim report is to be produced by May 2011 and a final report within 6 months. Huhne left the scope of the report to the HSE – „ the exact scope of the report is for you to determine in your capacity of chief nuclear inspector”. (10)
However, he was quoted as saying: (11) „I am not ruling out nuclear now. There are a lot of issues outside of the realm of nuclear safety, which we will have to assess. One is what the economics of nuclear power post-Fukushima will be, if there is an increase in the cost in capital to nuclear operators.“

4. The Media

The media has generally been supportive of nuclear power.

4.1 The Broadsheets

By end March 2011, the Financial Times had yet to comment on the implications of Fukushima for the UK. (12) The Sunday Observer argued: „For Britain, events at Fukushima are a timely reminder of the need for vigilance over safety, but not a definitive argument for abandoning atomic reactors altogether.“ (13) Its sister daily paper, the Guardian, was equivocal: „For all the emotive force of events in Japan, though, this is one issue where there is a pressing need to listen to what our heads say about the needs of the future, as opposed to subjecting ourselves to jittery whims of the heart. One of the few solid lessons to emerge from the aged Fukushima plant is that the tendency in Britain and elsewhere to postpone politically painful choices about building new nuclear stations by extending the life-spans of existing ones is dangerous. Beyond that, with or without Fukushima, the undisputed nastiness of nuclear – the costs, the risks and the waste – still need to be carefully weighed in the balance against the different poisons pumped out by coal, which remains the chief economic alternative.“ (14)
The Times was critical of Merkel’s decision to temporarily close some nuclear plants: „But if this suspension becomes permanent it will, in the longer term, expose Germany to the kind of power blackouts that Britain will suffer in the absence of new nuclear build.“ (15) It also said: „As far as Britain is concerned, this means that nuclear power should remain an important part of the energy mix and an integral part of a low-carbon economy.“ (16) The Daily Telegraph remained strongly supportive of the nuclear power programme: „Telegraph View: The earthquake in Japan must not divert Britain from its nuclear energy programme.“ (17) The Independent was critical: „Fukushima has revealed the dangers of the nuclear road. No adequate answer has been put forward on how to dispose of the waste from these power stations.“ (18)

4.2 The Tabloids

The Daily Mirror remained supportive to nuclear power: „We need to build more wind turbines but it's impossible to see beyond nuclear if we want to keep the lights on.“ (19) By end March, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express had yet to comment.

5. The Companies

EDF is by far the most committed of the companies that have announced plans to build new nuclear plants in the UK. It was quick to affirm its plans for the UK, its UK CEO, Vincent de Rivaz saying: (20) „While we understand the importance of adjusting the timetable to take into account the NII report, it is also equally important that establishing the framework for new nuclear should not be subject to undue delay. The events in Japan do not change the need for nuclear in Britain.“

(10) and
(11) Daily Telegraph ‘Huhne hints at rethink on power plants; Britain’ March 21, 2011, p 17
(12) and
(15) The Times ‘Nuclear option takes new risks’ March 15, 2011, p 37
(16) The Times ‘Core Facts; Nuclear power remains one of the safest sources of energy’ March 15, 2011, p 2
(19) Daily Mirror ‘Right to react’ March 19, 2011, p 8

Professor Stephen Thomas is professor of Energy Studies at the University of Greenwich and is a researcher in energy policy with more than 30 years of experience. His work is international in scope and the main areas of research are on economics and policy towards nuclear power; liberalisation and privatisation of the electricity and gas industries; and trade policy on network energy industries.
In recent years, his research has included: an evaluation of the economics of nuclear power; an assessment of the impact of the marketisation of essential services on low-income consumers; an assessment of the European Commission’s Directives aimed at opening the electricity sector in Europe to competition; an assessment of the South African government’s attempts to develop a new design of nuclear power plant; a review of the corporate policies of the major European energy utilities; and a review of methods of funding nuclear power decommissioning liabilities.


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