The Diplomat speaks with Chatham House's Antony Froggatt about the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan.*
Broadly speaking, what have you made of the Japanese response to the crisis at the Fukushima plant? Is there anything you think could have been handled better?
I don’t think it’s possible to answer these questionsin any detail at the current time, since it’s still not clear what’s going on.
There are clearly issues that are caused by either mistrust and/or communications, and at this stage it’s not possible to determine which of these is the primary cause of the problem. The most obvious example is the question of whether or not there is adequate cooling in one of the spent fuel ponds. The US government has stated their belief that there isn’t, while Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) says that there is. The adequate availability of cooling water is a very important safety issue, as if left for long enough without water there’s a real danger of considerable release of radiation. Disagreement between major players on such an important issue is therefore a matter of extreme concern.
I’d also highlight the different approaches of the international community. The French safety agency is saying that this is a Level 6 accident, the US government that it’s probably worse than Three Mile Island, while the International Atomic Energy Agency hasn’t updated their original rating that it’s a Level 4 accident on the INES scale.
Comparisons with the last major nuclear incident, at Chernobyl, are inevitably made. Is there anything that you've seen that suggests it could approach that level of seriousness?
This isn’t a simple matter, as there are important differences and similarities. Firstly, the designs of the reactors are very different. In particular RBMKs – the design at Chernobyl – had much larger volumes of uranium and the fuel was clad in a flammable material, graphic. Soonce there was a fire, it burned for a long time, enabling radioactive material to spread much further. However, the station at Fukushima is larger: six reactors plus the ancillary equipment, such as spent fuel storage. As we are seeing, the accident is spreading to different parts of the site, and this will increase the volume of radioactive material that could potentially be affected.
Was it simply misguided to have so many nuclear plants in a country as seismically active as Japan?
Assessments have been carried out to try to reduce the risks of accidents caused by a range of internal and external events. The Japanese authorities undertook a probabilistic safety assessment of their nuclear facilities in 2002, and concluded that ‘the frequency of occurrence of a core damage accident is 1/100,000 or less per one year for one reactor and the frequency of occurrence of an accident leading to containment damage is 1/1,000,000 or less per one year for one reactor.’ Given this, it’s clear that they either totally misunderstood the risks or the reactor design, or that there was inadequate oversight of operation and regulation.
Can you see the nuclear power industry recovering from this?
Given the ongoing nature of the disaster in Japan it’s impossible to say for sure. However, there are two factors that will be important.
1) How this affects the older reactors that are in operation around the world. As they tend to have lower safety margins and standards, there’s a question of whether a review might lead to their accelerated closure, as we are possibly seeing in Germany
2) How will this affect the costs and, as importantly, the investor perception of the financial risks of new build nuclear power? Both of these could potentially have a significant impact on the economics of nuclear power in the future, and therefore on whether utilities choose nuclear power or an alternative.
Antony Froggatt is a Senior Research Fellow on Chatham House's Energy, Environment and Development Programme.
*The situation surrounding the Fukushima reactors is extremely fluid. These views were expressed at about 9 am GMT.