The one year anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami on Japan's north east coast was marked in the UK over the weekend by the first 24-hour blockade of a nuclear site in over 30 years.

Following a demonstration by over 1,000 people at Hinkley Point C on the Severn estuary in Somerset, which veteran campaigner Martyn Lowe described as the largest anti-nuclear action in this country since protests against the Torness power station in 1979, 100 people blocked the main entrance to the site, stopping all traffic from entering or leaving for over 24 hours.

The peaceful demonstration and blockade were organised by Stop New Nuclear, a coalition of anti-nuclear groups which includes the Somerset-based Stop Hinkley. Its spokesperson, Camilla Berens, called this a “double record" for nuclear protest in this country.

The blockade formally ended at 2pm on Sunday when Japanese Buddhist monks performed a prayer for the victims of the tsunami that precipitated the Fukushima disaster and urged the UK government to take a more enlightened view on energy provision.

Martyn Lowe added: “It is clear that the tide is turning against the government’s push for a ‘nuclear renaissance’. The British public is waking up to the fact that ‘new nuclear’ is dangerous, expensive and completely unnecessary.”

Among those who addressed the crowd were Green MP Caroline Lucas, environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt, and Makoto and Akiko Ishiyama, a Japanese couple who were evacuated from the area around Fukushima, Japan.

“The government says it is now safe and they want local people to come back, but it’s a total lie,” Makoto Ishiyama told the crowd. “There is still a risk, it’s not safe and the accident isn’t over.”

Jonathon Porritt, who is launching a new book which provides a 'warts and all' overview of nuclear giant EDF Energy’s influence on Whitehall and Westminster, told the assembly that new nuclear power stations like Hinkley C could never operate without massive public subsidies towards their costs, including insurance and radioactive waste management.

Such potential subsidies are currently the subject of a legal complaint to the European Commission.

Jonathon Porritt said he found it “unbelievable" that nuclear energy was being put forward as a solution to climate change due to the expense and the timescale, as well as EDF's recent record in constructing plants which have been over budget and over schedule, and he called on the government to reconsider its energy strategy.

He added: “It is clear we can do everything we need to do without nuclear power. The whole thing is being fixed to suit the nuclear industry. In Germany, they are working towards a nuclear-free future that affordable and realistic. Why is it we don’t think Germany is a really good model to follow?”

Porritt slammed the Liberal Democrats as they gathered for their spring conference. Referring to the U-turn on their previous anti-nuclear policy, he said: “It seems there is no betrayal to which they will not stoop to keep in power.”

The Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, echoed Porritt’s call for an end to nuclear power in the UK. She added: “The £60bn the government wants invested in new nuclear is £60bn that should be channelled into developing renewable energy sources and making them fit for purpose in the 21st century”.

Stop Hinkley spokesman Crispin Aubrey said: “This has been one of the biggest protests ever held at Hinkley Point and shows the strength of feeling against EDF’s plans. The new reactors would be a constant drain on public funds and we don’t need nuclear power to keep the lights on.”

Alternative strategy

The government is prepared to abandon its nuclear programme if there is sufficient opposition from the public, and has in place an alternative strategy which involves a stop-gap implementation of combined heat and power plants, Stop New Nuclear's spokesperson Camilla Berens told Energy and Environmental Management.

She claimed that Chris Huhne told her this last year, when he was energy secretary, at a meeting arranged by the organisation.

"He said the strategy was that to start with most of these CHP plants would be fuelled by conventional gas, which would be replaced over time by an increasing amount of zero carbon gas from anaerobic digestion," she said.

This would fill the energy gap until a sufficient amount of renewable electricity come online from other sources: offshore wind and marine.

She said: "A decentralised approach with a broad mix of renewable and energy-efficient technologies can help reduce any future stresses brought about by foreign energy providers".

"Arguably, if the gas-fed CHP route is taken, it’s possible the Europe might be hit by a repeat of the kind of disruption caused by Russia’s dispute with the Ukraine in 2009. But the nuclear sector faces similar uncertainty.

"The world’s leading uranium producer is Kazakhstan – a nation that offers no greater reassurance of future energy security than its Russian neighbour. Meanwhile, the long-distance transportation of uranium from mines in Canada and Australia also presents risks in terms of accidents and terrorism," said Berens.

A further alternative strategy, which again uses the government's own figures, has been proposed in a report published earlier this month called A Corruption of Governance?, by the Association for the Conservation of Energy and pressure group Unlock Democracy. This document also accuses the government of a pro-nuclear stitch-up.

Plans for new nuclear

Currently, EDF has permission to carry out "preparatory works" on the 400-acre Hinkley C site but does not yet have safety approval for their new nuclear plant or planning consent to build the twin reactors.

The Office for Nuclear Regulation, which overlooks the safety aspects of nuclear power in this country, has granted an interim Design Acceptance Confirmation (DAC) and interim Statement of Design Acceptability (SoDA) to two designs for new reactors in the UK: Westinghouse's AP100 and EDF / AREVA’s EPR (European Pressurised Reactor). All the reports supporting this are here.

However, Westinghouse has not found a customer in this country, leaving EDF / AREVA's design as the only one being progressed at the moment; the first instance of this design is intended to be Hinkley Point C.

These companies are this year to provide the ONR with further information in an attempt to achieve final Design Acceptance Confirmation (DAC) and a Statement of Design Acceptability (SoDA).

The ONR are says that EDF has missed deadlines due to "their resources being deployed on assessment of the impact of the Fukushima event".

The Environment Agency last month granted an environmental permit to EDF Energy's and Centrica's joint venture company, NNB Generation Company Limited (NNB GenCo), which will be constructing the power station, relating to discharges of waste water generated from site preparation and construction activities at the Hinkley site.

Clean-up costs

Luckily, no one has yet died of radiation poisoning after the Fukushima accident, but the Japan Centre for Economic Research has estimated the entire cost of compensation and decommissioning of the six Fukushima reactors at between £330bn and £415bn.

The Japanese government has already agreed to provide nuclear operator TEPCO £9bn and the company has asked for an additional £7bn. This does not include government funds used to underwrite the cost of compensating the victims of the disaster.

This puts in perspective the public liability of just £1bn accepted by EDF for any accident at one of their new nuclear power stations. The UK government has agreed that it would foot the bill for any amount over this, were the worst to happen.

Back at Hinkley, Crispin Aubrey said that the weekend's action followed protestors occupying a barn in the middle of the building site for Hinkley C at the end of February.

This barn was occupied by the group for two weeks. Aubrey said that EDF obtained an injunction to remove the protesters but tried to extend the ban to any action by Stop New Nuclear.

"This was opposed successfully in the High Court by the organisation and by Stop Hinkley, on the basis of the right to free speech," he said.

He added that EDF still lacked the finance to proceed and there were strong doubts that the power station would ever be completed.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor