Fracking and Fukushima: our energy security fears

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Sunday 30 October, Royal College of Art, London


To a casual observer, two of the biggest news stories of early 2011 – the Arab Spring and the partial meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant after an earthquake and tsunami – could hardly have seemed more different. But for many in the West, the two events had one important factor in common: both had global consequences for the problem of energy. Political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa sent panic through the energy markets as oil supplies were once again threatened, while the spectre of nuclear meltdown at Fukushima offered a grim reminder of the risks posed by moving beyond ‘dirty’ fossil fuels. Indeed, barely a year goes by without an energy problem dominating the headlines: be it the BP oil spill of 2010 or recurring disputes between Russia and Ukraine over gas supplies. Even before one factors in the challenge posed to the EU27 countries by their commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 20% on 1990 levels by 2020, energy security is near the top of the agenda of every leading nation.

With renewable energy still a long way from being able to meet the shortfall, many gloomily predict a future of brown-outs, tough energy efficiency measures, regular deep-sea drilling disasters and even bitter resource wars. Yet not everyone is so pessimistic. The discovery of huge reserves of shale gas around North America and Europe has been dubbed a ‘game-changer’ in terms of security and reducing environmental impact, although some doubt the safety of the apparently miraculous ‘fracking’ process. Despite the apocalyptic nightmares, however, even some leading sceptical campaigners conceded that the avoidance of catastrophe at Fukushima demonstrated the potential safety of nuclear energy over other available forms. Others advocate ambitious global energy grids of the sort under construction in the North Sea and west coast US, but even this might end up creating more security headaches than it solves.

Will the struggle for energy security result in a new ‘Great Game’, as some predict, with increasingly energy-thirsty developing countries joining the fight for dwindling resources? With the UK’s notoriously ambivalent approach to providing abundant energy, will ‘less is more’ become a patriotic duty as well as an eco-mantra? What role can innovation and alternative energy sources play in keeping the lights on?

Professor Gordon MacKerron
director of Science and Technology Policy Research, School of Business, Management and Economics, University of Sussex

Tanya Morrison
government relations manager, climate changes, Shell

James Woudhuysen
visiting professor, London South Bank University

Tony Gilland

associate fellow, Academy of Ideas