Nuclear power has made a substantial contribution to the world’s energy needs over the past sixty years, but it cannot be denied that it has had something of a chequered history during that time. The events at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima represent the major blots on its performance record.
A quarter of a century passed between Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in March 2011, with no significant nuclear incident having occurred in the interim. It was recognised that Chernobyl involved a Soviet-designed reactor lacking in key safety features, which made it fundamentally different from reactors used in western countries. It was gradually being felt that nuclear power, using western-type reactors, could continue to be a valuable and safe source of low-carbon electricity, and that its use should be progressively expanded.
It is clear now that Fukushima radically changed this perception. The event, as is well known, was caused by a phenomenon external to the nuclear power plant – a catastrophic tsunami, triggered by a major earthquake.
The tsunami itself caused the loss of thousands of lives. The damage to the power plant caused no loss of life directly. Yet the nuclear dimension of the disaster remains in the public consciousness worldwide in a way the natural disaster on its own would arguably never have done (as witness the devastating Asian tsunami of 2004, which has largely faded from public memory).
There can be little doubt that Fukushima has been the key catalyst for a critical downturn in the global perception of nuclear power as a potential contributor to the world’s need for low-carbon sources of electrical generation.
The burgeoning climate of acceptance of nuclear power, which existed pre-Fukushima, was not robust enough to withstand any significant adverse publicity. Such confidence as was emerging in nuclear technology was a delicate growth, and any unfavourable development inevitably triggered a cascade of negative sentiment.
It mattered little that the travails of the plant at Fukushima resulted from an external event unique to earthquake-prone regions, and had no direct relevance to the safety of installations in geologically stable parts of the world. What impacted on the public consciousness was the stark fact that something had gone wrong at a nuclear plant, resulting in serious disruption of people’s lives in a large surrounding area.