Emails detailing how the UK government played down Fukushima show just how cosy it is with the nuclear industry.
It was an open secret that Britain’s decision to back nuclear power in 2006 was pushed through government by a cosy group of industrialists and others close to Tony Blair, and that a full debate about the full costs, safety and potential impact on future generations was suppressed.
But the release of 80 emails showing that in the days after the Fukushima accident not one but two government departments were working with nuclear companies to spin one of the biggest industrial catastrophes of the last 50 years, even as people were dying and a vast area was being made uninhabitable, is shocking.
What the emails shows is a weak government, captured by a powerful industry colluding to at least misinform and very probably lie to the public and the media. When the emails were sent, no one, least of all the industry and its friends in and out of government, had any idea how serious the situation at Fukushima was or might become.
For the business department to then argue that “we really need to show the safety of nuclear” and that “it’s not as bad as it looks”, is shameless. But to argue that the radiation was being released deliberately and was “all part of the safety systems to control and manage a situation” is Orwellian. An ignorant government that relies for its information on companies it is planning to reward with contracts for billions of pounds smacks of corruption.
These guys were not just cosy. They were naked, in bed and consenting. Their closeness now raises questions such as what influence could the industry have had on the chief nuclear inspector’s report on Fukushima, and whether speeches by David Cameron, Chris Huhne and other ministers were informed or even written by the industry. Can we ever trust government to tell us the truth on nuclear power, or should we just accept that the industry and government are now as one.
Until now the players in this drama must have been reasonably happy with the way the debate in Britain has gone. While the public has marginally shifted its position against nuclear power, little serious pressure has been put on the coalition. Unlike in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and many other countries, where the debate has been furious and governments have clearly had to think again, here the industry and its friends have managed to narrow the debate down to one about the medical safety of radiation and the impossibility of Britain being hit by a tsunami. There has been no major debate on nuclear costs, the legacy or the waste – which is just how government and industry wants it.
Instead, the news from Japan gets worse by the day. Tepco, the nuclear company which owns Fukushima, has admitted that the accident may release more radioactive material into the environment than Chernobyl; an area of around 966 square kilometres near the power station is now probably uninhabitable for generations; there is a strong likelihood that children living in or near Fukushima were exposed to radiation internally; the costs run possibly to hundreds of billions of dollars.
We now know Fukushima was on the same scale as Chernobyl, and likely to be the most expensive accident in the history of industrial accidents. Yet industry and government here want to dismiss it as “not as bad is it looks”. Much more than the facts coming out of Japan, the emails now make the situation far worse for the industry caught with government trying to manipulate the truth.
• This article was amended at 17:18 on 1 July 2011. It originally stated that Tepco has admitted that the accident “may have released” more radioactive material into the environment than Chernobyl. This should have read “may release” and has now been corrected