Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
23 July 2007

Nuclear: The risks remain

Incidents involving reactors in Germany and Japan have again demonstrated the dangers of nuclear pow

By Rebecca Harms

Ever since atom splitting has been used to generate energy, its risks and dangers have been controversial at least.

And since the disastrous accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, this debate has in reality been settled in Europe: The majority of the continent’s citizens are against this technology.

Proponents of nuclear fission have been trying to jump on the climate change bandwagon to resuscitate nuclear power after decades of stagnation. Unfortunately, some UN climate change strategists, as well as parts of the European Commission, have bought into the nuclear lobby’s arguments.

While we clearly need to reform our wasteful and polluting energy industry to meet today’s energy and environmental challenges grasping at even more dangerous straws cannot be the answer.

Even if the Germans, Swedish and Japanese live under the illusion that their own facilities are by comparison the safest, the operators of atomic facilities have often only avoided a repeat of the Chernobyl disaster by a hair’s breadth.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Only a couple of weeks ago in the end of June thick clouds of smoke poured out of a transformer in the nuclear power plant in Krümmel, Germany. The statement of operator Vattenfall claiming the fire in the transformer had no effect on the reactor itself proved to be misleading.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

The same day the reactor in Brunsbüttel, a Vattenfall reactor as well, had to be shut down due to network problems. Both incidents were assigned the lowest problem classification in the Vattenfall report – “N” for normal.

Also in last year’s incident in the Swedish Forsmark reactor Vattenfall tried to gloss over the seriousness of the situation. The Vattenfall policy of downplaying the actual problems, releasing information only bit by bit and even releasing wrong information is irresponsible and leaves one wondering what else they might be hiding.

Only a couple of days after the incidents in Germany the worldwide biggest nuclear power plant Kashiwazaki-Kariwa in Japan made it to the headlines. An earthquake had caused a series of problems, including a fire in a transformer, a leak in a cooling pond and the damaging of a number of barrels containing nuclear waste. Also here the operator delayed communicating the real scale of the problems to the public.

The incidents have shown that nuclear energy is not the modern high technology sector portrayed by the industry itself. Aging reactors, the disability to prepare for natural disasters and a safety culture that is at least questionable pose a permanent risk to the population.

It is wrong to try and counteract the risk of global warming through an expansion of nuclear energy and the consequential nuclear risks. Promoting nuclear as a sustainable energy source, as the nuclear lobby in Brussels and elsewhere is trying to do, is misleading. Any technology that can produce such devastating consequences as those in 1986 from the Chernobyl disaster can never be sustainable. Nuclear energy is a high risk technology.

We can lull ourselves into a false sense of security by trying to forget about past catastrophes. However, the fact that there has not been another accident with a core meltdown since Three Mile Island does not mean that it will never happen again. Every year there are thousands of incidents, occurrences and events in nuclear installations and, simply because there was no catastrophic radioactive leakage, the world reacts as if there was no problem.

The permanent risk of a core meltdown is a strong argument against the use of nuclear power. The lifetime extension of nuclear power plants heightens the risk of a major accident considerably. Are we going to find a solution to dispose of nuclear waste safely for thousands or even millions of years? This question does not only still lack an answer, it goes far beyond imagination. Every country using nuclear power could build a nuclear bomb if it decided to do so. These dangers are no less terrifying given the challenges of climate change.

Only a strategy which finally makes energy companies, ministers and citizens abandon the energy production fix will help fight against climate change. Conservation and efficiency must become priorities in energy supply and use worldwide. Only Negawatt instead of Megawatt and the swift expansion of renewable energy sources can put the brakes on climate change.