The second Breaking the Frame meeting on August 12th was lively and well attended, with a sting in the tail: following the three anti-nuclear speakers there was a brief presentation from a group called Environmentalists For Nuclear Power, which woke everyone up at the end of the meeting.
Nikki Clarke from The Stop Hinkley group first gave an update on the legal processes concerning Hinkley C: the UK government is in breach of EU competition laws but is trying to get the European Commission to change the rules in its favour. She gave an overview of the issues with nuclear power, pointing out how economic the 430 reactors that currently exist are. Whilst any profits are privatized (after big subsidies from the state), the risks from these reactors are borne by society, including future generations. She emphasised the lack of long-term solutions for storage of waste, some of which will be dangerous for over 200,000 years. Nikki also pointed out the strong inherent link of nuclear power to the military with the first magnox reactors built in the UK producing plutonium first for British nuclear weapons, and the second generation for the US military. She also mentioned that certain isotopes of uranium which are only produced in nuclear reactors have been found in Afghanistan. In response to a question about Iran, Nikki said that although she was opposed to nuclear power, western governments have no right to try to stop Iran from acquiring it.
Satsuki Goto of Japanese Against Nuclear talked movingly about her own experience of nuclear power and nuclear weapons growing up in Japan during the cold war. She said that Fukushima had been the most painful experience of her life and criticized the Japanese government’s handling of the crisis, especially their lack of openness. At present two of the Fukushima reactors have melted down, the containment has been breached and radioactivity is still constantly leaking into ground water and sea water. She also mentioned that it has recently become clear that radioactivity was released into the air from the reactors prior to the impact of the tsunami, which indicates that the earthquake itself had breached the containment. She pointed out that at this point there is simply not the technology to fix the situation and all that TEPCO (the private company contracted to deal with the Fukushima situation) can do is to keep pumping water into the reactors to keep them cool and hope for the best. The level of radioactive contamination at the site is so high that even robots cannot operate there, since the radioactivity destroys their electrical systems. Incredibly, despite the disaster Japanese companies, supported by the Japanese government are trying to export their nuclear technology to the UK and India.
Peter Lux from Together Against Sizewell C, who is a former physicist, talked about some of the inherent technological problems with nuclear power. Nuclear power stations, he said, are the most complex machines ever built. As Charles Perrow, author of ‘Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies’ has pointed out, this in itself means that accidents are more or less inevitable. These systems have been compared to financial derivatives by Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, who argues that there are similar tendencies in both industries to underestimate the risks of supposedly rare events. Nuclear plants tend to get built by trial and methods during their construction as engineers revise safety and other systems that do not work as they are supposed to. This partly explains the ordinary cost-overruns. Nuclear engineers are faced with difficulties that are not found in other industries, and as a result their solutions are not subject to the testing by other users that helps ensure the robustness of systems in other industries. Peter’s talk can be found here.