Damian Carrington, The guardian

Keeping the lid on costs when the task is to keep the lid on a slow motion atomic explosion is an impossible challenge

Damian Carrington
Wednesday 4 September 2013




Once upon a time, when the nuclear industry was shiny and new, it simply burned uranium. Now, old and tarnished, it burns money. From the promise of nuclear electricity being too cheap to meter, we now have costs that are too great to count.

At the site of the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, the government is being forced to spend over £200m on a fanciful-sounding underground ice wall in the latest desperate attempt to halt the radiation-contaminated water that is leaking into the sea.

When mere stopgaps cost this much, it is clear any real solution will cost the earth. Japanese taxpayers have already had to bail out the operator Tepco to the tune of £6.5bn. The final clean up will cost tens of billions and take 40 years.

Yet supporters maintain that nuclear power offers affordable low-carbon electricity and is a vital tool in the fight to curb climate change. The UK government, already spending most of its energy budget on nuclear clean up, has crashed through deadline after deadline in a fruitless search to find anybody willing to build new nuclear power stations at reasonable cost.

The only serious players left in the game are those backed by the French, Chinese and Russian states, whose interest in power is as much political as electrical. Commercial companies have fled the scene.

The fundamental reason why the price of nuclear power climbs each day as surely as the rising sun is a straightforward one. Keeping a lid on costs is impossible if the task in hand is keeping the lid on an exploding atomic bomb.

For that is what a nuclear reactor is, a slow motion detonation. That intrinsic danger means that as each new risk to reactors is discovered, more and more expensive measures need to be put in place as mitigation. When accidents happen, as they will over a half century or more of operation, the intrinsic risk of radioactive materials means more money is piled on the bonfire to ensure the risk to the public is limited.

The answer from the nuclear industry to all these criticisms is always the same: it will be different next time. But the rolling farce in Fukushima proves yet again the opposite. The only reliability the industry can offer is consistently breaking promises and busting budgets.

Today, it was revealed that radiation levels by the tanks of contaminated cooling water at Fukushima are 2,200 millisieverts an hour – a level that could kill an unprotected person in hours – and 22 times higher than previously thought. Why were previous measurements so useless? Because, Tepco belatedly admitted, they were taken using equipment that could not record radiation levels above 100 millisieverts an hour.

When you remember that this crass disregard for safety is occurring in one the most technologically advanced democracies in the world, the prospect of reactors proliferating around the world is alarming.

But perhaps this time it really can be different. Just two of Japan’s 50 working nuclear reactors are currently in operation and both are expected to be offline for maintenance by 15 September. That will leaving Japan without nuclear energy for only the second time in almost half a century. The UK government may at some point have to admit defeat in its attempts to start a nuclear renaissance.

As the false nuclear dawn fades, a new brighter horizon may be revealed, where the intrinsically safe and therefore ultimately cheaper technologies of energy efficiency and renewable energy can used to build a power system fit for the 21st century, not one harking back to the 20th.