The fear of a large-scale nuclear meltdown in Japan has reopened the debate on the safety of nuclear power across the world. As attempts to cool reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant in the east of Japan step up a gear, governments elsewhere have responded to fears about the safety of their own plants in light of the crisis.
With over 5,000 already confirmed dead and a further 8,600 officially missing from the effects of the devastating tsunami caused by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that shook the area in the afternoon of the 11th March, deep concerns have been voiced about the possibility of an even higher death toll should the Fukushima plant suffer a major explosion. The crisis has been rated by experts as a 6 on the Nuclear Event Scale, one below the score of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine and one above that of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the USA.
To curb the crisis, the Japanese government have authorised attempts to cool the reactors by dropping tonnes of water from military helicopters hovering above the plant. It is hoped that, by cooling the rods, harmful radiation will be blocked. A 20km exclusion zone has been put in place and 140,000 people who live within 30km of the plant have been strongly advised to remain indoors. Governments across the world have also advised their citizens in the area to leave.
The growing severity of the crisis has fuelled fears about the safety of nuclear plants elsewhere, especially considering Japan’s reputation for building the safest reactors. In Germany, where the strongly anti-nuclear Green Party won 10% of the vote at the 2009 elections, thousands of protestors in Stuttgart formed a 45km human chain to raise awareness of the issue with important state elections on the horizon. Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken the decision to temporarily shut down all plants operational before 1980, having already suspended controversial plans to extend the life of 17 nuclear power stations, conceding that it was “no longer possible to go back to normal”. The Swiss and Chinese governments have also imposed similar delays on approval for projects, while the already determinedly anti-nuclear Austrian government has called for wide-ranging safety checks on nuclear plants across the world.
In France, which gets 75% of its electricity from nuclear sources, there are calls for a national referendum on the issue. Possible courses of action include selling reactors to developing economies, but France’s dependence on nuclear is so great that the process could only happen in the long-term.
The debate in the USA has also changed. The acceptance by green lobbyists that nuclear power was a necessary part of a low-carbon future coupled with the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the pro-nuclear stance taken by the government appeared steady. However, the situation in Japan may have altered the balance of opinion, as an advisor to President Obama stated “the accident has certainly diminished what had been a growing impetus in the environmental community”.
It certainly appears that fears about the Japan crisis have reignited the global debate about the safety of nuclear power in general. If nuclear power advocates thought they were gaining the upper hand, they may have be forced to think again.