Japan's nuclear nightmare

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The true extent of the destruction that followed the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is only just being
seen. But it is clear that many thousands of people have lost their lives and billions of pounds worth of damage has been done.

A further casualty of this natural disaster may well be the plans to expand the use of nuclear power. Japan is the third largest user of nuclear power, with over 50 nuclear plants which provide over a third of its electricity. The magnitude 9 earthquake was greater than the plants were designed to withstand - yet such earthquakes could certainly have been foreseen.

Japan's nuclear industry has a history of safety problems and cover-ups. In 1999 the investigation into an accident in a fuel processing plant that killed two workers concluded that it resulted "primarily from human error and serious breaches of safety principles".

In recent years nuclear power has had a resurgence. It is almost 25 years since the last major accident at Chernobyl and despite frequent minor incidents the industry has been able to clean up its tarnished image. Part of this has been the attempt by the industry, politicians and, significantly, a number of environmentalists to portray nuclear as the zero carbon alternative to fossil fuels.

Superficially this seemed sensible. But if you take all aspects of the complex nuclear cycle - uranium mining and transport, fuel processing and the storage of nuclear waste - then nuclear has a high carbon footprint.

But, as the disaster in Japan illustrates, there are other problems. If a nuclear reactor does get damaged there is an enormous potential threat to people and the environment. The longer-term impacts of nuclear power must also be taken into account, primarily the need to find safe storage for huge quantities of radioactive waste, often for thousands of years.

Millions of people around the world will now question whether nuclear power is worthwhile. Already Germany and Switzerland have announced their intention to suspend their nuclear programmes.

To deal with this, the nuclear industry will argue that the plants that have failed in Japan did so because they were of an older type, without the latest safety features. There is some truth in this. The Fukushima reactors came online in the 1970s and even then government regulators knew that this particular design was more vulnerable than others. Some will also argue that building in a region with a history of severe earthquakes was the mistake and that reactors elsewhere in the world are safe.

But these points obscure wider questions. The danger of nuclear power lies in the material used, the extreme temperatures and the high levels of radiation, as well as the poisonous waste.

Accidents can never be eradicated, merely reduced, and these accidents can have grave consequences. The Chernobyl accident in 1986 had major long-term consequences. There are great debates over the numbers who died as a result of the radiation cloud that covered Europe. Some studies indicate that thousands of those involved in the clean-up operations may have died early as a result of radiation poisoning. Over 300,000 people had to be resettled elsewhere in the Soviet Union. In Belarus 25 percent of the farmland was contaminated, some permanently, and levels of illnesses such as thyroid cancer increased dramatically. The sale of hundreds of sheep in the British Isles is still restricted due to the effect of this radiation on farmland. Whatever the problems with other methods of generating electricity, accidents at coal powered plants or wind farms do not risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity.

Britain may not be at risk of massive earthquakes but, in common with many other countries, nuclear plants are built on coastlines and many are at risk from rising sea levels. Senior Tories have expressed concern that the nuclear industry may be damaged. They are keen to proceed with Gordon Brown's plan to massively expand nuclear power. The Liberal Democrats were strong critics while in opposition, yet Lib Dem energy secretary Chris Huhne has already said that there is no need to stop the rollout of new reactors.

As the threat of climate change grows, the only energy solution is one that involves harnessing renewable and sustainable energies on an enormous scale, as well as changing the way we use energy and organise our lives.

The first step would be to stop the construction of new nuclear plants immediately and put the enormous quantities of money involved to better use - investing in climate jobs, renewable energies and energy efficiency. Such an outcome will never undo the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake, but it will help ensure that future nuclear accidents are avoided.