While the attempt to regain control of earthquake-damaged reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plants continues, debate has already shifted to the implications for the future nuclear power industry in western countries, with the suggestion the recent revival of interest in nuclear power may about to be extinguished.
But even if a worst-case scenario unfolds in Japan, it will tell us nothing new about nuclear power plants: we know that when they fail, which is rarely, they can fail catastrophically, despite extensive back-up systems.
Debate around the safety of nuclear power will thus produce considerable heat but little light. Advocates of nuclear power will maintain that failure is very rare, that new reactors are safer, that the benefits outweigh the costs. Opponents will point to the grim drama unfolding in Fukushima now and insist “we told you so”.
This adds nothing to the key issue around nuclear power, which is its massive cost. As Crikey has repeatedly shown, nuclear power is extraordinarily expensive, especially for a country like Australia that has no extant industry. The construction of nuclear power plants is notoriously prone to delays, and the industry depends heavily on cheap, long-term loans, which usually need government guarantees. In comparison, several renewable energy technologies are established and cheaper to build and operate. They also do not entail the additional and massive cost of decommissioning reactors and storing radioactive waste, which is so great the cost burden must be borne by governments, not industry.
We all hope for a safe resolution to the problems in Japan. But they shouldn’t detract from the real issues around nuclear power.