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History will blame climate change on a wall

There is a nuclear power plant at Onagawa in Japan. So what, there are lots of nuclear power stations in Japan. There are two interesting facts about the plant at Onagawa. The first is that it was apparently built faster than any other nuclear plant in the world - and that was in 1980. The second, and this should surprise you, is that it is on the coast and only half the distance from the epicentre of the March 2011 earthquake that caused the devastating tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant which sent the world into a tailspin of terror about nuclear power. Onagawa not only survived unscathed by the tsunami, it even provided a refuge that saved the lives of hundreds of local residents.

Japan has now shelved it's plans to build 14 new reactors by 2030 and every unaffected reactor in the whole of Japan has now been shut down. Angela Merkel has declared that all nuclear power in Germany will be phased out. The UK's nuclear programme has been shot to ribbons as a massive project planned for Anglesea has been shelved - allegedly for financial reasons, but there were few tears in the press. We have absolutely no idea where our future power is going to come from. All over the world nuclear power is being seen as the bad guy thereby justifying politicians to tear up expensive contracts to build them - all thanks to Fukushima. But nobody ever mentions Onagawa.

Thousands of homes were destroyed by the tsunami around the Onagawa plant. In order to save themselves, hundreds of local residents ran to the plant itself, where they all survived! And the plant kept going. The above graphic does show Onagawa as a "Damaged nuclear power plant". The tsunami did trigger a radiation alert there. However, it was later found that the radiation detected there actually came from Fukushima down the coast. Onagawa is 32 years old and could still be going strong despite being hit by a 15m tsunami. The reason it survived, quite simply, was because it was surrounded by a wall twice as high as Fukushima's. A bigger wall. The world has canned its nuclear strategy because some twat built a wall too low.

Nobody wants more fossil fuel power stations. They pump CO2 into the atmosphere. In fact over 30% of all man-made CO2 comes from power stations (40% of China's CO2 comes from power stations) - that includes cow farts. Interestingly cars account for only 16%. But burning coal, oil and gas are still the cheapest and most practical ways to produce electricity when and where its needed. There is also a rather unfortunate fact that while CO2 is a greenhouse gas, making the world hotter, burning coal also emits sulphate particulates - which cools the planet. But sulphates soon dissipate, unlike CO2, and they're responsible for health problems. Getting rid of CO2 from emissions using Carbon Capture and Storage technology is a possible solution but it's very expensive and has not been deployed commercially anywhere yet, despite China's determination to build ever increasing numbers of coal-fired power plants including the world's biggest, generating 8,000,000,000 Watts of power.

What about renewables you might ask? Wouldn't it be great if all our power came from solar, wind, wave, ground source and hydro? Well the sun only works at night, and only shines consistently a long way from where we need the power. Long thick copper cables from Libya to Glasgow anyone? Wind and wave are unpredictable and expensive. Ground source is fine where you've got heat near the surface, like Iceland. And we've used everywhere possible already for hydro-electricity - including the hugely controversial 3 Gorges Dam(n) project in China which wiped out hundreds of villages and thousands of square miles of wildlife habitat and farmland. Actually the biggest problem with all renewables is storage and distribution. Production is relatively easy, if not yet cheap.

So until we solve that problem, what are we left with that doesn't heat the planet, make us cough and which we can turn on and off when required? In the 1970s, as part of my engineering degree at UCL, I studied nuclear engineering. So whilst not an expert, I do understand broadly what's going on in a nuclear reactor. In basic terms when you put sufficient quantities of enriched isotopes of stuff like Uranium and Plutonium in close proximity to itself, the change from one isotope to another through radioactive decay increases (thanks to atoms being closer, banging into each other more frequently) which produces energy. By controlling the arrangement of rods of those isotopes, you can regulate the rate of decay and therefore the amount of heat generated. By using a coolant like certain gases, pressurized water or even liquid sodium (and no doubt many others these days), you can transfer the heat from the fuel rods to steam turbines, which make the electricity. The coolant returns, cooler, to the rods and the process cycles until the rods are 'spent' and sent away to be enriched again - a sort of recycling (which the UK at Thorpe in Sellafield is a world leader).

There are of course many dangers to humans in this process. The main one being where the coolant doesn't reach the rods which in turn may not be separated sufficiently from each other. This can lead to meltdown - famously at Fukushima, Chernobyl and in the USA at Three Mile Island. It also happened at Sellafield - but it was called Windscale then, and was hushed up. Secondary dangers exist from radioactive substances escaping from the plant. Coolant, fuel rod casings, plant equipment, even workers' clothing can all be moderately dangerous if exposure is prolonged. These are usually buried in very deep shafts. Sometimes they're mixed with glass or a ceramic and then buried, so no matter how many times the glass/ceramic is broken, the radioactivity will never increase because of chain-reactions. Radioactive atoms simply can't ever get close enough together to stimulate each other.

BUT - today we know far better how to deal with all of this than we ever have in the past. Each and every disaster is a very very big thing. The industry knows it's massively unpopular and that it's potentially devastating for the people working in it if it gets something wrong. So it works increasingly hard never to make the same mistake twice. The mistakes of the past can usually be avoided. The more critical the lessons, the more likely they are to have been learned and for rigorous procedures and failsafe designs to be implemented.  But unfortunately, decisions to implement safety features are not quite as simple as they might seem. One of the reasons Fukushima failed was because certain gas safety valves weren't large enough and they didn't filter out radioactive particles from escaping into the air. In the US there are 31 reactors similar in design to Fukushima. It will cost around $20m each to upgrade their safety valves for an event that is incredibly unlikely to recur... but self-evidently, it can happen. So is the expense justified or are they 'safe enough' already because they aren't located in earthquake zones? Tricky. Read this for more about the debate.

But we're a very long way ahead of where we used to be. The first reactors were controlled without a single computer predicting, monitoring or controlling anything! How would you like air traffic control to be performed by humans with nothing but binoculars? Well that's exactly how it used to be done. Today we don't think twice about using a microwave oven in our homes. Microwaves kill. The oven door and walls shield us. The batteries in your electric toothbrush contain enough poison to kill you many times over - but you put it in your mouth without any qualms. Your car carries 50 litres or so of octane hydrocarbon (petrol to you and me). It's massively explosive and poisonous to breathe or ingest, but we happily pour it into our cars wearing no protection. Diesel contains benzene which is carcinogenic. We fly in aircraft. 100+ ton aircraft at 40,000 feet above the ground... held up there by nothing more than barely 100 years of experimentation, otherwise previously known as a wing and a prayer. I asked a pilot friend who'd been flying commercial jets for 35 years how much safer he thinks we are today than when he started flying. "100 times" was his answer!

We use radiation to see through our skin and to treat cancers. The electricity coursing through the computer I'm bashing this out on, will kill me if I touch a bare wire or something metal in contact with that wire. Your kettle, washing machine, fridge and lights are all killers. But we trust the engineers who make them because they've learned, often the hard way, what is safe and what is not. Untreated water can contain diseases like cholera and typhoid, or parasites which burrow into our brains (yo House), but we merrily drink whatever comes out of our taps.

If we abandon nuclear power because a wall was too low, we're throwing away over 60 years of learning how to safely harness the cleanest, cheapest and most reliable source of power we've every invented. Even Greenpeace have changed their tune. Once the global campaigner alerted the world to the dangers of nuclear power. Their current campaign doesn't once mention nuclear safety.


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