In the 12 months since the Fukushima meltdown, the once-accepted maxim that nuclear energy is the safest and most reliable form of energy production has -- for the first time since Chernobyl -- been thrown into question around the globe.
According to The Guardian, compared to previous years, the construction of new reactors around the world this year fell in the wake of the Japanese disaster, while public opinion seemed to harden against nuclear power as a desirable source of energy.
But not so in the UK, where opposition to nuclear power appears to be less vocal; certainly less so than in many of its European neighbours.
While continental governments have shied away from nuclear energy, most notably in Germany where, according to Tobias Münchmeyer of the German Greenpeace party, "The shocked German public forced Chancellor Merkel either to phase out nuclear or to phase out herself", Westminster has forged ahead with plans to increase Britain’s nuclear capacity - plans that have long since been in place.
In 2008, the then-Labour government proposed increasing Britain’s nuclear output as part of the UK’s long-term energy mix. This included investing in more nuclear power stations, as well as continued investment in other low-carbon sources.
Despite opposition from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, the Tories endorsed the proposals in June 2010, recommending the building of more nuclear power stations as long as it was carried out without public subsidy.
Plans for the building of new plants were announced by Energy Secretary Chris Huhne in June last year, including new reactors in Bradwell (Essex), Heysham (Lancashire), Hinkley Point (Somerset), Oldbury (South Gloucester), Sellafield (Cumbria), Hartlepool (Borough of Hartlepool), Sizewell (Suffolk) and Wylfa (Isle of Anglesey).
Eight new reactors are to be built in Britain (The Huffington Post UK)
The decision to push ahead with the building of new plants followed the publication of a report on Fukushima from the UK’s chief nuclear inspector and director of the nuclear safety and security regulator Mike Weightman, which concluded that there was no need to curtail the operation of stations in the UK.
He said: "I remain confident that our UK nuclear facilities have no fundamental safety weaknesses… We will ensure lessons are learned from Fukushima. Action has already been taken in many cases, with work under way to further enhance safety at UK sites.
"While it is only six months since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, I am satisfied we are in a position to have drawn reliable conclusions and identified the main lessons to improve safety.”
The UK currently has 17 reactors generating around 18% of the nation’s power but most of these are due to be retired by 2023.
The first of the new raft of reactors are expected to come online by 2018.
Blogging for The Huffington Post UK, John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, said that the natural disaster which struck Japan one year ago was "made worse" by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
“But even before the tragedy in Japan, major investors, such as Citigroup, were questioning the economics of nuclear new build. After the disaster, with the increased costs of meeting new safety standards, the economics look even worse," he added.
“As David Cameron and Nick Clegg take forward their plans for a shakeup of Britain’s electricity system this year, they should use the Fukushima anniversary to challenge some of the old assumptions and vested interests that are serving us so badly.”
However, the environmental lobby has come up against determined advocates for the nuclear industry. Keith Parker, the chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, a trade organisation that works on behalf of the UK's 60,000 nuclear workers, called nuclear power "the cheapest low-carbon energy source" and "an essential part of the UK‘s energy mix".
"The nuclear new build programme will not only increase our energy security and reduce our carbon emissions," he told The Huffington Post UK. "It will also provide substantial economic and employment benefits across the whole of the UK – we have already seen this in motion at the Anglo-French summit only a few weeks ago."
"With each nuclear site an infrastructure project on the scale of the 2012 Olympics, the opportunities available to UK companies and workers are substantial – both for those already involved in nuclear and those looking to become part of the supply chain.”
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