The meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant one year ago was all the more terrible because it struck Japan as a natural disaster was unfolding.
Around 20,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami. Countless more were injured or forced to flee their homes. Instead of being able to concentrate on responding to this natural disaster, the Japanese authorities had to divert resources to the Fukushima plant.
150,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes. A 20km exclusion zone remains around the plant. High levels of radiation have been recorded in staple food products, such as rice, beef and baby formula. The Japan Centre for Economic Research calculated that compensation and decommissioning would cost between $520bn and $650bn. This will be largely picked up by Japanese taxpayers.
Across the world, the nuclear industry has stalled. Costs are soaring and governments, such as Germany, are phasing out reactors and instead building renewable energy plants.
This year, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have the opportunity to overhaul Britain’s electricity system with a new Energy Bill in parliament. They should use the Fukushima anniversary to challenge some of the vested interests that are serving us so badly.
Even before the tragedy in Japan, major investors, such as Citigroup, were questioning the economics of nuclear new build. Now the economics look even worse. The French Audit Court concluded that the new French reactor design was too costly and could not be built in time to solve France’s energy crisis. No wonder President Sarkozy was so keen to offload those same reactor designs to David Cameron at a recent meeting in Paris.
The front-runner in April’s presidential election, Francois Hollande, has promised to phase out one-third of France’s nuclear fleet by 2025. And as European politicians have turned increasingly against nuclear, they have started taking energy efficiency seriously. In Germany politicians plan to reduce electricity demand by 25% by 2050 through energy efficiency.
But the coalition government here in Britain is planning for electricity demand to double over the same period, even though Ministers accept that energy saving is cheaper and greener than building new power stations. The new Secretary of State for Energy Ed Davey is up against the “big six” energy utilities which, unsurprisingly, want greater demand for energy, because they profit from selling more heat and electricity, not less.
The world is on the verge of a renewable energy boom. More money was invested in renewable electricity generation worldwide in the last two years than in conventional power. This is driven by Germany but similar investment in Britain could benefit manufacturing here and create much needed jobs.
But first the government has to face down the vested interests and vociferous lobbying of the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. The big question is whether they will set Britain on a course to be a leader in the global race for affordable, modern, clean energy? Or will they turn their back on Britain’s renewable energy resources and the potential for thousands of home-grown jobs?
This piece orgininally appeared on Huffington Post.