Recently, a powerful magnitude 7.3 earthquake jolted Japan's north-east coast off Fukushima – in the area of the defunct Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Initially a tsunami warning was issued, but thankfully no tsunami eventuated and warning was cancelled.
This earthquake is a reminder of the risks associated with nuclear energy, and the vulnerability of even relatively modern nuclear energy facilities.
A lesser risk of nuclear power is the risk of extremely high costs.
A series of BBC programs “The Lakes with Simon Reeve” have aired recently on Australia’s SBS channel. I watched them because I’d like to visit England’s Lakes district one day. Simon Reeve is taking a broad view of the Lakes District –I was expecting a show of beautiful scenery and quaint English villages, which is certainly included, but I wasn’t expecting a journey into a massive nuclear energy facility, Sellafield, on the edge of the Lakes District National Park.
In this series Simon Reeve presents a large collection of astounding and horrifying facts and figures about Sellafield, which inspired me to research it further.
Sellafield is a huge nuclear facility covering 265 Hectares, in the north-east of England, just south of the Scottish border.
Sellafield was set up after the end of World War 2 to make plutonium for the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons. It’s the most complicated nuclear site on Earth, with over a thousand building.
Sellafield became a world centre for nuclear reprocessing and now has the largest store of untreated nuclear waste on Earth. In fact, the United Kingdom has enough nuclear waste to give everyone in the country a shopping bag full, and they keep most of it at Sellafield.
Nuclear power station
In 1956, the first commercial nuclear power station on Earth, Calder Hall, was added to the facility. Calder Hall stopped generating electricity in 2003.
This vast complex employs over 10,000 people and is the major employer for the county of Cumbria.
But Sellafield doesn’t produce anything; the power station shut down nine years ago, and the whole complex is now being decommissioned. This sound like poor job security for the local area, but it isn’t – decommissioning is expected to take more than 100 years, and to cost A$220 billion!
An option for storing the nuclear waste, some of which could be radioactive for 100,000 years, is to deep bury it. Deep-burying the waste is believed to be safe, but it could cost another A$23 billion.
When Calder Hall nuclear power station was first commissioned the usual claim was made that the nuclear- generated electrical energy was going to be so cheap that there would be no need to meter it. I wonder if any money was put aside from the sale of the electricity towards the cost of this eventual clean up and decommissioning?
As an indication of how long-term an issue this waste is, records are kept on paper designed to last 200 years. This is so that people through the generations will know what is being stored there. This is a huge imposition on many future generations, and relies on society continuing to understand the nature of the nuclear waste stored at Sellafield.
In 1957 a nuclear accident occurred in a reactor that was being used to created plutonium for use in weapons. Uranium fuel in the core of the reactor caught fire; the fire burned for three days before the operators were able to work out how to bring it under control. The story of the attempts to douse the fire are a fascinating and horrifying read, and show how unprepared the operators were to deal with such an incident, and how little knowledge they had about what was happening in the reactor.
The accident released radioactive fallout which spread across the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. However, it could have been much worse if the operators had failed to douse the fire: the incident was near miss on a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident that could have made a large part of northern England into a nuclear wasteland.
You might think that secrecy about huge failures like this, which threaten many lives, is a feature of countries like Russia and China. However, at the time of the incident, no one was evacuated from the surrounding area, despite the serious risk of it escalating into a meltdown. The UK government played down the event, reports on the fire were heavily censored, and information about the incident was kept secret. Radioactivity was discovered around the site and the nearby village, but this was kept secret, even from the staff at the station.
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