I don’t know about you, but every time I start wading into a news story featuring nuclear anything, I start feeling like we, collectively, as humans, have basically been a toddler that somehow unlocked grandpa’s gun cabinet for the last 75 years or so – we’ve found this Shiny Thing that occasionally goes bang in exciting ways and now we want to see what else we can do with it. And we have absolutely no idea what it’s really capable of. Except instead of just killing like, ourselves, or a loved one, it’s capable of destroying the entire earth. So… more like a toddler that’s got into grandpa’s nuclear warhead cabinet, really.
Nuclear fission, the process that lies at the core of both atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, has fundamentally altered our world in so many ways that it would be a completely unrecognisable place without it. And while it’s made significant advances in science, engineering and medicine possible, when it comes to associations it’s hard to get past the image of a mushroom cloud and the names of places like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima.It’s probably deeply unfair to associate nuclear warfare with nuclear power station disasters, one being intentional destruction and killing with weapons and the other being the accidental result of unforeseen circumstances in otherwise useful infrastructure, but the connections seem a lot more concrete once one gets into discussions about the security issues surrounding nuclear power stations. Discussions like the ones Belgium is currently facing after the death of a guard at a Belgian nuclear facility two days after the attacks in Brussels on the 22nd of March 2016. The incident sparked fears of sabotage to a nuclear power station despite the local prosecutor ruling out any military link to the guard’s death, and further security measures heightened tensions in the weeks following the attacks. Media reports have stoked fears that nuclear plants in Belgium might be potential targets for terrorists seeking nuclear materials.
Which… is not great news, although it’s wise to consume news media in the days and weeks following a terrorist attack with a healthy grain of salt. Besides which, there’s a much larger and longer-running discussion around Belgium’s nuclear power plants that poses serious logistical and political problems for a sizeable portion of Western Europe: really friggin’ old reactors.Both the Doel plant on the Dutch border and the Tihange plant near the German border have experienced maintenance and mechanical issues in the last five years. Both plants have reactors dating back to the mid-1970s. The Netherlands and especially Germany are calling for Belgium to mothball the oldest of the reactors in these plants – which were scheduled to be shut down in 2015 – due to fears they might malfunction enough to cause nuclear meltdowns, also known as the worst possible crisis your neighbours can have, narrowly beating out noisy marital disintegration and acquiring an anxious and overzealous Chihuahua.
Germany has made similar demands to France, which is closing its oldest nuclear power station, the 39-year-old Fessenheim, this year. The Energiewende, or energy transition, launched by Angela Merkel’s government in 2011 has seen plans put in place to close all of Germany’s nuclear power facilities by 2022. Largely spurred on by the disaster in Fukushima in March 2011, the Energiewende policies saw a reversal of the CDU’s plan to extend the lifespan of Germany’s nuclear reactors to 2050, and instead beat a hasty retreat to the timeline originally proposed by its left-wing predecessors in government.It’s a policy that is not without its detractors, five years on. Nuclear power still provides about 18% of Germany’s electricity production at the moment. Finding a balance between the difficulties in creating new renewable energy infrastructure and trying to limit the need for increased reliance on fossil fuels is no small task. They’re getting there – almost a third of Germany’s energy requirements were met by renewable sources last year. But the nature of the European energy landscape means that there is a not insignificant amount of import and export between Germany and its neighbours, and Germany’s neighbours are still big into that sweet, sweet, nuclear buzz. While proponents of the Energiewende policy claim this doesn’t compromise Germany’s political position on nuclear energy, the fact remains that nuclear energy will still be passing through Germany’s grid and coffers as long as its neighbours are producing it, and that nuclear disaster – of the kind it fears will happen in Belgium – doesn’t respect national borders. Is it alarmist to talk about an impending nuclear disaster in Belgium? Maybe not, when you consider that the Belgian government decided three weeks ago in late April to provide iodine pills to its entire population, in case of a nuclear accident. The pills are to prevent the build up of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland, which is one of the most well recorded hazards of radiation exposure from nuclear accidents. The move doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the government’s decision not to shut down the reactors, but then again it’s worth noting that 60% of Belgium’s electricity comes from nuclear power, so it’s not really a decision they can make lightly.
So how worried should we be? Greenpeace certainly has grave concerns. But nuclear energy proponents point out that the dangers posed by increased fossil fuel usage are a certainty, compared with nuclear power, which only poses the possibility of a threat. There are even arguments that radiation exposure after a nuclear accident isn’t as dangerous as we’ve thought. The problem is that the argument around nuclear energy is deeply polarised, with compelling facts on both sides, but a disturbing lack of scientific certainty or consensus. It often comes down to balancing the benefits of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption with the difficulty of storing and disposing of nuclear waste – both extremely long-term issues with ramifications that will need to be dealt with many generations down the line (assuming we don’t annihilate ourselves in the meantime).Ultimately Belgium is left with the choice between taking drastic action to overhaul its energy infrastructure (either in the form of new reactors, or alternative forms of energy production), or crossing its fingers and hoping for the best. But does it have a responsibility to listen to its neighbours on this matter? Given that the EU is currently seeking to strengthen investment in nuclear energy throughout its member states it might be best served by planning construction of new reactors, despite its pledge to phase out reliance on nuclear power. Who knows, maybe we’ll reached the promised land of nuclear fusion, with its increased safety and efficiency, and less hazardous by-products compared to fission. Unfortunately that technology seems to be perpetually thirty years away from commercial production, and Belgium’s problems can’t wait that long. And if it chooses to continue down the path of fission energy, it’s fairly likely that Germany won’t be too keen to let it borrow a cup of sugar or water its houseplants in the near future.
PS While researching I came across that old 1950s video on what to do in case of nuclear attack, so please enjoy this horrifying jaunt through history: