For now, Japan has avoided a full-scale nuclear disaster. A hydrogen explosion at Fukushima No 3 nuclear plant earlier this morning injured 11 people and collapsed a reactor building but officials report that the core is still intact and that radiation levels are below legal limits. Seawater is still being pumped into the reactor in a desperate attempt to cool it down.
But what one can say with confidence is that the crisis will shift public opinion everywhere against nuclear power. Japan, which currently relies on nuclear plants to generate roughly 29 per cent of its electricity, had planned to increase this to as much as 40 per cent by 2017. That now looks distinctly unlikely.
In Britain, the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, a reluctant convert to nuclear power, will struggle to sell a new generation of reactors to a sceptical electorate. In an interview on Sunday, he suggested that public opinion in the UK would be “very influenced” by the investigation in Japan.
But with the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster just a few weeks away, the fear that history could repeat itself in Fukushima will incline all but the most ardent supporters of nuclear power against the technology. Even if, as Huhne rightly pointed out, “we don’t live in a seismically active earthquake zone”, the dramatic TV images of exploding reactors will leave an abiding impression. In his Daily Telegraph column, Boris Johnson beats the drum for nuclear power (“more essential with every day that passes”) but few others will be prepared to do so.
Yet while the world is transfixed by the threat of a nuclear disaster, the death toll from the tsunami and the worst earthquake in Japan’s history, now estimated at more than 10,000, continues to rise.