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Japanese earthquake shakes faith in new nuclear plans

Richard Moss | 15:58 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Japanese troops in recovery operation.

Japanese troops continue the recovery operation in the devastated communities of Northern Japan.

The horrendous events in Japan make you realise just how vulnerable we still are to the power of nature.

An earthquake can unleash a wave that can wipe out whole towns, and threaten to cause a nuclear disaster.

And the aftershocks of that are being felt here too.

Some are already beginning to write off the chances of a new generation of nuclear power stations being built in the UK.

In a way that seems a little odd.

Although the UK can suffer minor earth tremors, there is no prospect of a serious earthquake or tsunami.

The only major nuclear incident in British history - the Windscale fire - was certainly not down to nature.

So in a way, events in Japan should not make any difference to confidence here.

But inevitably it does. The problems in Japan have reminded us again how potentially deadly nuclear power can be if something goes wrong.

In recent years, even some greens have begun backing nuclear power.

But that could all change. The fear factor that brought the industry to a halt after Chernobyl may well re-emerge.

And communities - such as Hartlepool or West Cumbria - which were due to have a new generation of nuclear power stations built close by may be more worried than they were.

Fukushima nuclear power station

Explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power station threaten to damage confidence in the industry.

The opponents of nuclear power have been quick to notice that. But they also say the Japanese nuclear crisis is relevant even outside an earthquake zone.

And so the North East Lib Dem Euro-MP Fiona Hall now wants all nuclear development in the UK halted.

She has written to the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne asking for a a moratorium to allow a public debate to take place.

She said: "The key issue at Fukushima is not the earthquake but the failure of back-up systems during the emergency shutdown. With Hartlepool on the list of sites the Government is considering for future nuclear development, this is a very important issue for the region.

"Public and investor confidence in nuclear energy has been severely shaken by events in Japan. A moratorium is now necessary to give time for a full public debate and reassessment."

And elsewhere in Europe the Japanese crisis is already having an impact. Both the Swiss and German governments have suspended decisions on their nuclear programmes.

You can imagine many other Lib Dems feeling the same should happen here.

The Coalition Agreement had committed the Government to pursuing a new generation of nuclear power stations, as long as there was no public subsidy.

But many Lib Dems would love to bury that commitment.

Chris Huhne has not gone down that route to date, but he has asked UK nuclear regulators to examine what is going on in Japan and see if there are lessons to be learned.

Others though are urging caution.

The Copeland MP Jamie Reed has Sellafield in his constituency, and also wants to see a new nuclear power station built in the area.

He says there should be no kneejerk reaction to events in Japan.

He accepts lessons may need to be learned, but he points out that the technology in Fukushima is more than 50 years old. He says it is not the kind of station that would be built in Britain.

He also thinks that any decisions need to be made for the long term. He told the BBC's Newsnight that nuclear power was essential for energy security, reducing carbon emissions and for promoting economic growth.

Those are all arguments that have helped encourage a rise in public support for nuclear power in the last few years.

But even Jamie Reed accepts that the Japanese earthquake will make it much harder to convince the public that it is also safe.

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