Issuing new licenses for nuclear power plants is an important step forward for securing a clean, reliable source of energy. Nuclear energy’s progress has been hindered by the massive upfront costs of building new facilities, but even more so by the public fear of nuclear accidents. To be sure, nuclear accidents such as those at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are horrifying events. However, what most people do not realize is that all three were the result of human error, and not some inherent danger of nuclear power itself. Fukushima was located in an earthquake zone, Chernobyl’s operators disabled the plant’s safety systems, and Three Mile Island’s operators failed to realize a problem with the plant’s cooling system. These issues can be overcome by proper training, regulation of plant location and advances in system design.
The key to safe nuclear power is plant design and location of facilities. As pointed out in The Economist article, British nuclear plants are not located in earthquake zones. New technologies for nuclear plants such as the gravity-induced cooling systems of the AP1000 are important for improving the safety of nuclear reactors. The self shutdown mechanisms like the one described in Popular Mechanics allow reactors to protect themselves from human error. Systems such as these have been in use on naval reactors for decades and are a crucial mechanism in ensuring plant safety. Accidents such as Three Mile Island and Fukushima are the direct result of the inability to cool fuel rods. The positive reactivity of Chernobyl’s coolant can be overcome by simply using a different type of reactor.
The debate over safety concerns and whether nuclear is truly a ‘green’ energy will probably never cease. However, the quest to find sources of energy that are cleaner than traditional coal means that nuclear will never be entirely excluded as a potential source of energy. Clearly politicians on both sides of the Atlantic believe that nuclear power is an important part of their countries’ future energy mix.