The long, dark shadow cast by the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station grew longer and darker on Wednesday as the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, Tepco, admitted that 300 tonnes of highly toxic water had leaked from purpose-built storage tanks. The disaster, caused when the tsunami that followed the devastating earthquake in 2011 knocked out backup generators pumping water to cool the fuel rods, has cost more than $200bn (£128bn) and is now expected to cost billions more. The human cost, so slow is the impact of radiation, won’t be measurable for a generation. It has profoundly shaken confidence in the future of nuclear power, from Taiwan – where earlier this month MPs resorted to fisticuffs as they debated a referendum on a new nuclear power station – to Berlin, and it’s changing the landscape of new nuclear here in Britain.
Until Fukushima, the risk of catastrophic meltdown of the sort that occurred first at Chernobyl was supposed to be one in 100,000. But Fukushima occurred almost exactly 25 years after Chernobyl and that slashes the estimate to one in 5,000. In addition, the kind of cascade of devastating events that hit Fukushima hadn’t previously been factored into risk probability assessments. Now regulatory authorities all over the world have been forced to consider whether, however unlikely, more than one accident could happen in quick succession, and what the consequences would be. The whole risk and safety assessment framework is being redesigned.
Britain and France are almost the only countries in Europe still determined to expand nuclear (and France is reducing dependence) rather than focus on holding down demand for electricity, but costs are soaring.