LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is to push on with its nuclear plant building plans and let existing reactors run as normal, the government said on Wednesday after its nuclear watchdog dismissed fears of a Fukushima-like disaster in the UK.
Britain’s position contrasts with Japan, Germany and Italy which are re-thinking their nuclear plans after a huge earthquake and tsunami sparked the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years on March 11.
The report by the chief inspector of nuclear installations Mike Weightman reassured the government that Britain does not face the natural hazards which caused the Fukushima crisis, but told the industry to check its safety procedures against extreme events.
“We want to see new nuclear as part of a low carbon energy mix going forward, provided there is no public subsidy,” Energy Minister Chris Huhne said. “The Chief Nuclear Inspector’s interim report reassures me that it can.”
In his interim report, to be completed after a forthcoming trip to Japan, Weightman said safeguards already in place in Britain should protect against even very remote risks.
“The extreme natural events that preceded the accident at Fukushima - the magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent huge tsunami - are not credible in the UK,” he said.
His report said there was no need to halt nuclear power generation, and supported proposed sites for new reactors, but recommended that the industry review sea-level protection.
A nuclear meltdown and radioactive release in Japan happened after a huge tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima reactor’s defences, flooding back-up power generators and leading to a loss of cooling in reactor cores.
Weightman’s report recommended that the UK nuclear industry review whether it needed additional backup power. He supported Areva and Westinghouse’s designs for future reactors that are likely to be built in Britain, saying he would be surprised if major design changes were needed.
Britain has identified eight sites around England and Wales as possible building sites for new nuclear plants, with the first expected to be built by EDF at Hinkley Point on the coast of southwest England by 2018.
Japan is reeling from the triple disaster of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, with the government struggling to figure out how to pay for reconstruction.
Japan’s Prime Minister said on Wednesday that Japan needed to rethink fundamentally how nuclear power was regulated but sidestepped the question of how big a role atomic energy would play in the country’s future.
Germany moth-balled its oldest reactors immediately after Fukushima, but the country shouldn’t altogether exit nuclear energy immediately, its environment minister said on Tuesday. Italy has delayed until 2012 a vote on new build.
The quake caused the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, after a partial meltdown of fuel at the Fukushima nuclear plant and explosions led to a radioactive release and the imposition of a 20-km exclusion zone.
Such explosions caused by a release of hydrogen could not happen at UK plants, Weightman’s report said.
He visits Japan next week to lead a fact-finding mission on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
His report on Wednesday said that the Fukushima reactor was not defended against the 15 metre tsunami despite reports of some greater than 20 metres around Japan in the past 150 years.
He praised the determination of the operating company TEPCO in dealing with the crisis.
Additional reporting and editing by Daniel Fineren