x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Japan's crisis and lessons for a safe nuclear industry

There should be lessons learnt from the nuclear disaster ongoing at Fukushima in Japan, not least planning for extraordinary events , but there are several basic reasons why nuclear power is here to stay.

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake followed by a 10-metre tsunami - it is hard to imagine a more severe stress test thrown at a nuclear power plant. As Japanese authorities yesterday struggled to contain possible reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, observers were quick to draw their own conclusions.

For the anti-nuclear lobby, it was an opportunity to attack the industry; Germany and Russia both announced immediate reviews of safety procedures; and analysts from various quarters questioned industry-wide safety policies and risk analysis models.

Not only Japan has been shaken by events of the last three days. The wreckage caused by the earthquake and tsunami has given way, for the time being at least, to fears about Fukushima and even speculation about the nuclear industry as a whole.

It is far too early to judge the full consequences of this accident. But in any event, countries across the globe will remain wedded to nuclear power. As just one example, within a day of the accident, China announced that it would not change its plans to generate 40 million megawatts at new nuclear power plants by 2015. For the UAE too, nuclear energy is a basic constituent of the national development policy. There should be lessons learnt from Fukushima - not least planning for extraordinary events - but there are several basic reasons why nuclear power is here to stay.

In a world increasingly concerned by climate change, nuclear fission is the only energy source that can meet growing demand while not breaking emissions targets. It is relatively large-scale, cheap, plentiful and, barring an accident, clean. Radioactive fallout and waste are obvious concerns where best available technology has to be applied.

The Japanese nuclear industry is usually credited with the highest safety standards for its technology and practices. In this case, however, the Fukushima plant had been in operation for 40 years and was scheduled to be decommissioned. Crucially, the first failsafe - the automatic reactor shutdown - did work.

New plants, including those planned for the UAE, have other safeguards to prevent overheating, although there will undoubtedly be lessons learnt as this event becomes better understood. Such a massive earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami so near a nuclear plant may seem like phenomenal bad luck, but nuclear safety demands that extreme events are planned for.

Hopefully, the Fukushima plant will survive this test without further loss of life or major environmental degradation. Japanese authorities have marshalled a quick emergency response. In considering the future of the industry, a similarly practical approach is in order.