On March 11, 2011, almost 25 years after the Chernobyl accident, Japans Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was struck by an earthquake and tsunami, prompting the release of radioactive contamination that will public health and livelihoods in Fukushima Prefecture and beyond. More about Fukushima here.
As the planet wakes up to the fact that global warming is a reality and that fast action is needed, the nuclear industry, having floundered for a few decades, has seized on the opportunity to promote itself as the answer to our energy fears.
It seems that global governments are suffering from mass amnesia and are doing a good job of spreading it around.
The reality of nuclear power is no different now than it was in the 20th Century - it is inherently dangerous.
Time and time again the industry has demonstrated that safety and nuclear power is a contradiction in terms.
Safe reactors are a myth. An accident can occur in any nuclear reactor, causing the release of large quantities of deadly radiation into the environment. Even during normal operations radioactive materials are regularly discharged into the air and water. The policy of secrecy,which surrounded the development of the bomb, was transferred to civil nuclear power projects after World War II and lives on today.
The nuclear dusty was suffering serious nuclear accidents long before the catastrophic Chernobyl accident in 1986. Twenty years later the industry is plagued with incidents, accidents and near-misses.
Aging of nuclear reactors, in particular the effect of prolonged operation on materials and large components, is endemic throughout the world's nuclear industry. At the same time nuclear operators are continually trying to reduce costs due to both greater competition in the electricity market and the need to meet shareholder expectations.
Just a few examples of industrial nuclear incidents that highlight the world is never far away from the next nuclear catastrophe:
Japan, as one of the largest operators of nuclear power had its worst nuclear accident in 1999 at the Tokai-mura nuclear fuel plant when two workers received lethal doses of radiation; one year later, it was revealed that vital safety data and inspections had been manipulated at tens of reactors to avoid 'expensive' repairs and lengthy closure;
Despite claims that the nuclear industry and government had adopted higher safety standards, in 2004, a steam explosion at the Mihama reactor killed five workers. In 2006 a district court ordered the shut down of a nuclear reactor as it could not withstand severe earthquakes - all of Japan's reactors are sitting on top of one of the world's most active geological faults;
The US, with the world's largest fleet of nuclear power plants, only just avoided a catastrophic accident at the David-Besse reactor in 2002, when it was discovered that corrosion had come very close to penetrating the vital pressure vessel - an accident scenario that can lead to a complete reactor core meltdown. Greenpeace had filed a complaint to the US nuclear regulator warning of the risk of corrosion at all US nuclear power plants ten years before. The warning was ignored; following the discovery at David-Besse, it was shut down for two years (costing US$600 million), but then given a license to operate until 2017;
French nuclear safety agency activated its emergency response centre in December 2003 in response to torrential rainfall along the lower Rhone River, following the emergency shut down of two reactors (Cruas-3 and -4) due to flood affected damage;
In 2000, the UK Sellafield nuclear fuel processing site was found to have a fundamental failure of safety culture by Government inspectors - but only after public disclosure of violations of quality control and safety standards at its newest nuclear plant (Sellafield MOX Plant). This helped convince the government of Ireland to launch a legal challenge against the UK government at the UN International Court in Hamburg on the issue of nuclear safety at Sellafield.
In addition to the risk of accident, nuclear plants are highly vulnerable to deliberate acts of sabotage and terrorist attack. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which promotes the use of nuclear power, admitted that in the light of the September 11th 2001 attacks in New York that:
"Most nuclear power plants were built during the 1960s and 1970s, and like the World Trade Center, they were designed to withstand only accidental impacts from the small 'Cessna' type sports aircraft. If you postulate the risk of a jumbo jet full of fuel, it is clear that their design was not conceived to withstand such an impact."