Will nuclear power become Labour’s albatross?

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by G.A.Ponsonby

As if the earthquake and resulting tsunami wasn’t enough, the people of Japan are facing a new catastrophe in the shape of a nuclear meltdown at the Dai-ichi nuclear plant in the province of Fukushima. The plant lies 40 kilometres south of the hard-hit city of Sendai.

The plant has suffered a third explosion at the number 2 reactor and two fires in reactor number 4 which has resulted in the international severity level being raised from level four to level six.

To understand the seriousness of the threat, level seven on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale has been invoked only once, following the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

There has already been an official admission that a partial meltdown has occurred and fears of a total meltdown remain.  If there is a partial or total meltdown, it could become impossible to remove the fuel. That’s what happened in 1979 at Three Mile Island (a level five disaster), which remains sealed off to this day.

The explosions at the Dai-ichi plant have witnessed radiation levels up to nine times higher than normal being detected as far as 270 kilometres away.  Following reports of the radiation emissions, the transportation ministry imposed a no-fly zone over a 30 kilometre radius around the plant.

The Japanese authorities have now officially admitted that radiation poses a threat to human health and people living within the region have been told to stay indoors and make their homes airtight.

The plight of the Japanese cannot be underestimated.  Faced with a disruption to their nuclear generation programme, the country will struggle to accommodate the very real need for electricity.  Japan relies on nuclear for around 30% of its power and has invested heavily in the nuclear programme.

Japan’s nuclear engineering was recognised worldwide as one of the best – a benchmark in reliability and safety.  The region is known to be prone to earthquakes and the facilities were designed to withstand such events.

It also has to be recognised that the problems at the plant are down to a failure in the cooling system that saw the water supply shut off in the immediate aftermath of the quake and not the quake itself.

So what does the disaster mean for the nuclear lobby in the UK and indeed Scotland?  There can be no doubt that there will have been a psychological impact on the millions of people watching the events unfold in Japan.  The sight of a nuclear plant exploding is one that leaves an impression.

The evacuations of hundreds of thousands from areas up to 30 km away from the plant serves as a reminder of the potency of threat posed by radiation. The ramifications of such an event in Scotland with its relatively narrow coast to coast distance would be unimaginable.

So great is the international impact that demonstrators in Germany are already demanding the closure of that country’s nuclear facilities. In America lobbyists are reported to be “scrambling” on Capitol Hill and the US Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, has been forced to defend US nuclear energy policy.

In Scotland, of course, the debate over nuclear power is on-going.  On the one hand, we have the SNP who have used their term in office in order to drive a pro-renewables agenda that insists that we can harness Scotland’s immense green potential and satisfy our power needs through a mix that does not require new nuclear power plants.

On the other is the nuclear lobby spearheaded by a pro-nuclear Labour party who insist that new nuclear power plants are necessary if the ‘lights are to stay on’.  The stance adopted by Labour at both UK and Scottish levels conflates the needs of the UK with those of Scotland.

There is no argument that England cannot satisfy its current electrical requirements without the construction of new nuclear power plants.  Indeed, England already relies on electricity generated in Scotland in order to meet current demand.

Scotland however has less than a tenth of the UK’s population and many experts have insisted that we are capable of meeting our electricity needs without constructing any new nuclear facilities.  Clean coal, carbon capture, wind, wave, biomass, solar and hydro will give Scotland more than enough energy and renders the nuclear argument redundant they argue.

That Labour has to respond to the concerns thrown up by the events in Japan is not in question, sooner or later the Holyrood election campaign will focus on Scotland’s energy needs.  The events on the other side of the world and the global coverage mean that Scotland’s media cannot airbrush the dangers of nuclear out of the campaign.

Prior to the catastrophe it would have been sufficient to claim that nuclear was needed as part of what the Unionists term a ‘mix of energy sources’.  Labour will now have to come up with answers to questions that will be asked of the safety of nuclear and hope that Scots will opt for the nuclear risk over what Labour claim is a renewable uncertainty.

The quandary for Labour is that whatever they say, it may not in itself be enough to placate an electorate still waiting to find out the full implications of the Japan situation.  The argument that says more research and development is needed before the full renewable potential is realised may see the electorate simply demand more investment – fiscal autonomy anyone?

As things stand it seems inconceivable that Labour will enter the Scottish elections arguing for new nuclear power plants to be built in Scotland.  But do not underestimate Labour’s ability to turn the situation on its head and claim that the Japan catastrophe is proof that brand new plants are now urgently required if the situation is to be avoided.

That kind of line would need the whole UK media onside in order to have any chance of working. The fact that England needs new nuclear plants may well be the deciding factor.

It’s an intriguing dilemma for Labour in Scotland and one that will be taken out of the hands of their Scottish ‘leader’ Iain Gray who is becoming increasingly marginalised as the Holyrood campaign nears.

Whatever Labour come up with it will need to be good if Scots, already aware of the potential that renewable holds, are to be persuaded that Scotland, blessed with such an abundance of green energy, really needs new nuclear power stations.

Alternatively, both Labour and the Scottish media may well simply hope the story goes away.  Trouble is that radioactive fallout has a tendency to stick around for quite a while.