Ten years ago, happened the Fukushima disaster. Many articles and reports are coming back to this dramatic event which has caused thousands of deaths in Japan and has warned world opinion about the nuclear risk. At that time, the consequences on the population and on environment are by large described but it is to early to make the distinction between a natural catastrophe and a major nuclear accident. Today, it is not anymore the case and many reports including the last United Nations one are clearly establishing the facts and their consequences. Despite that the confusion is still maintained and in the public opinion Fukushima is still a nuclear disaster when it is wrong.
What’s happened ten years ago? An earthquake with a very large magnitude occurred off the Japanese coasts. It has provoked a huge tsunami which has broken the coast and ravaged villages and their homes. According to the last evaluations, it has caused about 17 000 deaths. We hear sometimes that it is a consequence of climate warming. But an earthquake has definitely no links with the accumulation of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Areas along the Pacific and the Indian Ocean know these phenomena for centuries. California was affected in 1906 and is still afraid by the Big One due to a fissure in the earth crust which was identified since a long time. Thailand in 2004 and Indonesia more recently are among the countries which have been among the most affected.
The natural disaster then has provoked a major nuclear accident because the power unit has been flooded by the waves which have engulfed the electric system which guaranteed the cooling of the reactors. The heart of several units went into fusion, generating radioactive emissions around the site. The accident so would have become a nuclear catastrophe. The operator, the Tepco group, has been criticized for not having taken enough precautions to protect the cooling systems, in particular because it didn’t put in place a second system at an high enough position to be protected against a possible tsunami. But to the difference of the two previous identified nuclear accidents, Three Miles Island in the U.S. and Tchernobyl in Ukrania, it is an external factor to the power plant which has been at the origin of the accident.
At the end of the Seventies, along the U.S. East Coast, a new reactor producer, Combustion Engineering, was starting the final tests before the connection to the grid. A mistake in the design of the reactor has provoked the fusion of the reactor heart. But the accident did not make any victim. As a consequence, the company has abandoned all its activities and no model with these characteristics was ever built. In Tchernobyl, it was a human mistake which was at the origin of the disaster which there caused thousands of deaths with radioactive emissions expanding themselves to a part of Europe. But that disaster, to the difference of Fukushima did not provoke any disaffection of this kind of power production. To the opposite, France and Germany decided to design together a new model which, even in the case of a human error, would automatically stop functioning. That concept was named the “passive safety”. They did not qualify the alliance an Airbus-like nuclear reactor but it was really that. That reactor was the EPR, the European Power Reactor. Having problems to be dominated on technology questions by their French partners, the German manufacturers progressively withdraw themselves from the project. And France made the major mistake of waiting for 15 years before allowing EDF to order this new reactor which explains the current difficulties.
If Tchernobyl did not generate, to the opposite, a disaffection regarding nuclear, Fukushima was at the origin of it. Japan stopped almost all its nuclear plants and put them back in activity very slowly. Germany took the opportunity of the catastrophe to decide its abandon. All the nuclear power plants will have to be closed by 2022. This example was followed a few years after by Belgium. In the German decision, it was mainly a pretext based on political considerations. In taking that decision, the government was sure to get the support of the ecologists and, mainly, was reassuring the population of the länder where were produced coal and brown coal.
France did not go so far but Fukushima was utilized as a pretext to close the Fessenheim nuclear power plant, to adopt as an objective the reduction until 50% of the nuclear production in the power mix and to delay the orders of the new power plants which will have to be built to replace these built which are now more 40 years old. The paradox, it is that the studies done since the accident have shown that this one has had very low consequences on the Japanese population and that we are not even sure that there has been even one death caused by the power plant. But that has not impeached the diffusion of fake news these last days about the risks associated to nuclear production, which has occulted the negative economic consequences of the decisions taken in France.
The idea according to which renewable constitute an alternative is the first one among them. Being intermittent by nature, they are unable to provide a supply safety which is as indispensable for economic activity as for French people daily life. The only possibility is to build new natural gas or coal power plants, as it is happening in Germany. It is then difficult to pretend that this policy has, as an objective, to fight against climate warming.
As another fake news, the renewable competitiveness would be in favor of their development. Production costs reduction is indisputable but these power production techniques are not comparable, except if we are not aware of the supply safety. So it must be added to the production and operational costs of wind farms and solar panels the construction and the operating costs of the power plants which will be necessary to put in operation when weather conditions or simply the alternation of the days and the nights will not allow them to produce enough power. The diversification of the power plants number is justified when alternative solutions are credible but must not lead to the opposite situation as environment is concerned.
As it happens frequently, France enjoys playing what has become the national sport, to criticize what is working well. Nuclear is not the only example. The denunciation of the High-Speed-Train priority policy is among these critics. But with the attacks against nuclear which have intensified after Fukushima, we reach excesses. France closed a power plant which had receipted operating authorizations and the State must pay hundreds of millions euro to compensate EDF. That comes at a time when the current pandemic is slowing maintenance activities. So the nuclear power production reduction constrained France, during last November, an unprecedented fact, to be a net importer of electricity. We prefer to massively subvention production techniques using imported equipments and to keep in operation plants which use fossil fuels instead of building in France nuclear power plants which would create thousands of jobs.
To well govern, it is first to know to understand reality. Then, it is to avoid to looking for in the same time contradictory objectives. The less we can say is that the current projects related to energy transition are far from fulfilling these two conditions.