Harrisburg, Chernobyl, Fukushima. When do we learn the lessons?

If there is anything to be learnt we will learn it, because safety is our number one concern“, said Energy Secretary Chris Huhne on 14 March, after the horrendous nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.

While this is being written, and Peace News goes to press, the worst has not happened, and hopefully it will not. It is highly likely that a partial meltdown of the reactor core is under way at at least one of the three reactors, and possibly at all three. But so far, the reactor vessels seem to be able to contain most of the radioactivity. Still, more than 120,000 people have been evacuated from a 12 mile zone around the reactors, and many more in a 19 mile zone have been ordered to stay in-doors. What the long-term consequences of this catastrophe will be, is at present totally unclear.


So what are the lessons to be learnt from Harrisburg, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?

It has to be pointed out that the catastrophe of Fukushima was not caused by the earthquake or tsunami – it was triggered by it. The cause is a failure of the cooling system, including the backup cooling via emergency diesel generators. In Harrisburg in 1979, it was also a failure of the cooling system that led to a partial meltdown of the core – and there was no earthquake.

German nuclear expert Lothar Hahn said in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau: “We have seen in the last 30 years these three cases. This fits well with the probability calculations of existing reactor risk assessments. The next accident can happen tomorrow, but also only in 100 or 1000 years. But it cannot be excluded.

Or, to put it more bluntly: if an accident can happen, it will happen. It is not a question of 'if', it is only a question of 'when'.

Nuclear power in the UK

The UK has an ageing fleet of nuclear power stations, and plans to build new reactors at up to eight sites – the first ones at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk, which both host existing reactors.

Many of the UK's existing reactors are already beyond the lifetime – but while some have been shut down, others get their life time extended. EDF, the owners of British Energy and with it of most UK nuclear power stations, announced lifetime extensions of all of its ageing AGR reactors such as Heysham and Hartlepool by 5 years (and possibly for a further 5 years after that), and of Sizewell B by 20 years, in December 2010. Older reactors are no longer safe, and certainly do not meet today's safety standards, and rather than extending their lifetime, they should be shut down.

Although the Lib Dems promised to not provide subsidies for nuclear energy, and even opposed nuclear before the elections, the government has since been creating a framework to enable EDF, Eon and RWE-npower to build new nuclear power stations in the UK, and to offload the economic risk to the general public – either to the tax payer or the consumer of electricity. EDF applied for permission to prepare the ground next to Hinkley Point for the construction of Hinkley Point C – a massive new nuclear power station consisting of two 1600 MW EPR reactors. It wants to do so even before it receives planning permission for the power station itself – something which might well be delayed after the the accident of Fukushima. Next in line will then be Sizewell, where it is again EDF who are presently preparing the necessary consultations for a planning application.


Over the last few years, resistance has only grown slowly. However – it exists. In November 2009, some groups and individuals formed the Stop Nuclear Power Network, with a focus more on nonviolent direct action against nuclear new build in the UK. Several small blockades of Sizewell took place, and in October 2010 also Hinkley Point was for the first time hit by a small blockade. Especially around Hinkley, new anti nuclear groups were formed to organise the resistance to Hinkley C. Existing anti nuclear groups at nuclear sites in the UK joint forces in December 2010 and formed CONNED (Communities Opposed to New Nuclear Energy Development), to coordinate their response to the government's consultation on nuclear, and generally their activities.

London anti nuclear group Kick Nuclear launched a campaign to boycott EDF, the company that is most advanced in terms of nuclear new build in the UK, in October 2010. It encourages everyone who is a customer of EDF Energy – many in London and in the South West of the UK – to switch energy provider, preferably to a green alternative, to hit EDF where they might feel it most: in their bank accounts. Similarly, customers of RWE npower and Eon should also consider switching provider, and let EDF, RWE npower or Eon know why they are doing it.

Sizewell demonstration, 23 April

Planned before the catastrophe of Fukushima, and already in its third year, is the anti-nuclear camp at Sizewell from 22-25 April 2011, to mark the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe of Chernobyl. The demonstration on Saturday, 23 April, in front of Sizewell, which was also already planned, is now being turned into a national demonstration against nuclear power. Details are still being finalised as Peace News goes to press, but demands will likely include:

  • no nuclear new build in Britain

  • the revocation of lifetime extensions for the UK's nuclear reactors

  • a plan for the shut down of all existing nuclear power stations within a reasonably short time

  • the promotion of a zero carbon Britain, based on renewable energies, as soon as possible, at latest by 2030.

If there are lessons to be learned from Fukushima, it is that nuclear power cannot be controlled. It is high time to resist nuclear – and especially nuclear new build – in Britain.

Andreas Speck

Andreas Speck has been an anti nuclear campaigner since the early 80s, first in Germany, and now in the UK. He is a member of Kick Nuclear, the London group of the Stop Nuclear Power Network.


Stop Nuclear Power Network UK

c/o 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX

email network [at] stopnuclearpoweruk.net

Sizewell Camp and demonstration:

Sizewell Blockaders,

email: camp [at] sizewellcamp.org.uk http://sizewellcamp.org.uk

Boycott EDF

c/o Kick Nuclear, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX

campaign [at] boycottedf.org.uk http://boycottedf.org.uk