Will nuclear power cloud our future?

Since the development of nuclear energy in the mid-twentieth century, the world has become heavily reliant upon nuclear power. This reliance, however, has come with considerable risks. Last month’s tsunami in North-eastern Japan that caused a meltdown – still in crisis mode – at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant has caused the international community, and most likely the governments of the world to reassess the value in developing nuclear energy facilities.

Since 1979, three major nuclear accidents have occurred that have grasped the attention of the world’s media, environmental activists, and even ordinary citizens, changing perceived notions about the value and risks of nuclear energy. With the latest disaster in Japan, as the full effects are still unknown, is it possible that the nuclear energy industry’s growth will slow down, or even come to a complete halt?

The first of these major accidents took place at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, USA in March 1979.  It produced widespread outrage among American citizens, and studies released after the accident provided conflicting reports on the health effects from radiation on local residents; ranging from one to two deaths from cancer to a dramatic increase in infant mortality. Regardless of the findings, the disaster at Three Mile Island had severe consequences on the American nuclear industry and reduced public support for nuclear energy projects into the 1980s and beyond.

The next accident, at Chernobyl, in April 1986 is classified as a seven: a major accident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.  It is considered the worst nuclear accident in the history of the ‘International Atomic Energy Association’ – however the crisis at Fukushima has yet to be classified the by the IAEA. The deaths and illnesses attributed to Chernobyl were far higher than at Three Mile Island, as an official UNSCEAR report cites, 68 directly related deaths as of 2008. The horrible disaster that took place at Chernobyl caused the international community to raise concerns over the legitimacy of the Soviet power industry, which in turn slowed the expansion of nuclear projects in the following decade.

Despite these terrible crises at Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl, the nuclear energy industry has continued to grow.  Critics voices, however, only seem to get louder, and public distrust stronger. Will Fukushima be the trigger to stop nuclear expansion?

In an ideal world, electricity would be in abundance and governments would not dare venture into the complicated industry of nuclear technology. Yet the ideal is far from reality. The World’s reliance is evident in its numbers. In the UK alone, nuclear energy generates nearly a fifth of the country’s electricity, and in other developed countries it accounts for much more. Countries with more limited natural resources, like Japan, also the world’s third largest economy, have 54 reactors (not including the former functioning three reactors at the Fukushima plant) producing thirty percent of their nations energy. These astoundingly large calculations, constantly increasing, propagate doubts about whether the world will ever be a nuclear-free place.

However, many modern states are taking a different approach. In our own home of Scotland, energy is being produced by other means. While nuclear energy currently produces roughly a half of Scotland’s electricity, Prime Minister Alex Salmond’s government has established a ‘no new nuclear power strategy’ for the future, seeking alternative solutions, mainly in wind power. Other countries with these resources could follow Scotland’s path.

Evidently, many countries are lucky to have an abundance of natural resources, or can afford to rely upon alternative energy solutions in wind or water.  The reality is that many more are not. The question concerning nuclear power and the pros and cons in its development hinges not on the decision to develop nuclear energy.  Perhaps the implementation of greater safety measures within the nuclear industry is in order. The execution of safer nuclear energy should become a necessity, mandated by the IAEA.  If the world cannot live without nuclear energy, then it must find a way to make it safe, and ultimately to ensure disasters such as the one at Fukushima are forever in the past.


Julianne Funk