Leading article: Japan's disaster must prompt a new look at reactor safety

Share
Related Topics

Amid the apocalyptic scenes reaching our television screens from northern Japan, it seems invidious to address just one aspect of this catastrophe or to draw any conclusions – so recently did disaster strike and so comprehensive is the destruction. Already, however, the disaster has posed with a new urgency a question that seemed to have been retreating from global concerns in recent years: how safe, really, is nuclear power?

Japan, given its history, had every reason to be among the most circumspect countries in developing and harnessing nuclear power. Its geography argued for double, treble, the precautions that might be taken anywhere else. And until last week, the safety measures appeared more than adequate. Japan had a safety record, and a reputation for integrating safety into design, that was second to none. The famed national discipline and resilience of the Japanese was seen as an added asset, in the event of anything untoward.

Until now, it had also been possible to cite Japan's experience to rebut fears about the safety of nuclear reactors. There was always something particular about previous nuclear accidents that would not, it was assumed, be replicated in Japan. America's worst nuclear accident, at Three Mile Island, was the consequence of a mechanical failure that caused the reactor core to overheat. New regulations and design changes followed. The most destructive of all nuclear accidents, at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, whose 25th anniversary – by a cruel quirk of fate – will be commemorated in just one month, reflected shortcomings in design, but also the neglect of infrastructure and general indiscipline that attended the last years of the Soviet Union. Nuclear power in Japan, it was widely accepted, was at a whole different level of reliability.

All assumptions about the safety of nuclear power must now be open to challenge. Maybe it will turn out that there was more that Japan's regulators could have done to ensure the safety of the reactors at Fukushima. Already some are highlighting criticisms voiced previously in Japan, alleging trade-offs between safety and cost. It is also possible that the extensive safety measures that were in place minimised the escape of radiation. Officials appeared confident yesterday that a meltdown of the cores of two reactors had been, if not prevented, then contained.

Even the best-case scenario, however, will not suffice to allay the doubts about nuclear power that have nagged so many for so long. Granted that this was a natural disaster far off the scale of anything ever envisaged, even for Japan's fragile geology, the implications are still grave. If the Japanese, with all their understandable inhibitions about anything nuclear and all their world-leading technology, cannot build reactors that are invulnerable to disaster, who can?

This big question reverberated almost immediately in a small way in Britain. With the Coalition committed to a new nuclear power programme – a policy to which the generally anti-nuclear Liberal Democrats reluctantly signed up – the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, announced that he had commissioned a report from the UK's Chief Nuclear Inspector on the "implications of the situation in Japan and lessons to be learnt".

Pressed in a subsequent BBC interview, Mr Huhne ducked the possible impact on British public opinion of the situation in Japan, insisting that the public would form its opinion based on the inspector's report. That may reflect wishful thinking on his part. The pictures from Japan, the reports of radiation leaks, the evacuation ordered for 200,000 people within a 20km radius of Fukushima and the memories refreshed by the Chernobyl anniversary will all affect opinion, not just in Britain, but around the world.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star