Nuclear alert system is not up to the job, MPs warn

Classing Fukushima as serious an incident as Chernobyl shows the international scale for nuclear accidents is “not up to the job” for warning the public over such disasters, MPs said today.

Last year’s disaster at the Japanese reactor following a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami was classed as a level 7 accident because of the amount of radioactive material released – putting it on a par with the 1986 accident at Chernobyl.

However, many times less
radioactive material was released than at Chernobyl, and nobody died or received a life-threatening dose of radiation from Fukushima, the science and technology committee said.

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It called for the International Atomic Energy Agency to review the international nuclear and radiological event scale to show orders of magnitude and make it understandable to the public.

The committee’s report into the risks of energy generation also said the UK government’s position as an advocate of nuclear power made it difficult for the public to trust it as an impartial source of information on the technology.

The committee said independent regulators should take a bigger role in communicating the risks of nuclear power and other new energy technologies, such as “fracking” for shale gas or capturing and storing carbon from power stations, so that people could trust what they were being told.

And it suggested that letting communities be involved in ownership of energy projects such as onshore wind farms in their area by offering them shares in projects could build trust and acceptance of those schemes.

The committee’s chairman, Andrew Miller, said: “The public must be able to trust the information it receives on the risks of nuclear power and other energy technologies – such as fracking or carbon capture and storage.

“Developing the public profile of independent regulators as trusted and authoritative
sources may be one way of increasing public trust and understanding of such risks.”

He added: “Fukushima was no Chernobyl, but the public were left with a confusing picture of the real risks from the accident partly because it was classed as the same magnitude.

“Although tens of thousands died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, to date nobody has died, or received a life-threatening dose of radiation, from the Fukushima nuclear accident and no-one is expected to.”

“The accident has made it clear that the international nuclear and radiological event scale is not up to the job.

“The International Atomic Energy Agency should come up with a better and more accurate way of communicating the risks involved in any future nuclear accident.”

The parliamentary
report also said regulators and other suppliers of information should emphasise to the public that exceeding recommended minimal radiation
exposure levels may not pose any risk and safety thresholds may allow for much higher
exposure to occur without any significant danger to health or the environment.