Home Energy and Environment Nuclear Power Plant Explosion in Japan; A Few Thoughts

Nuclear Power Plant Explosion in Japan; A Few Thoughts

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According to Stratfor, “A March 12 explosion at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Japan, appears to have caused a reactor meltdown.” According to Stratfor, “events in Japan bear many similarities to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster,” with concerns that if the floor of the containment vessel has cracked – the “nightmare scenario for a nuclear power event” – the situation goes from “merely dangerous, time consuming and expensive to nearly impossible.” As if that’s not all bad enough, the Washington Post reports that “Japanese authorities had declared a state of emergency for the five reactors at two nuclear power complexes as military and utility officials scrambled to tame rising pressure and radioactivity levels inside the units and stabilize the systems used to cool the plants’ hot reactor cores.”

All of this once again raises serious questions about the safety of nuclear power, just as occurred after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Each of these incidents caused major setbacks to the nuclear power industry, and the current situation in Japan – which, according to EIA, “has 54 operating nuclear reactors with a total installed generating capacity of around 49 GW, making it the third-largest nuclear power generator in the world behind the United States and France” – is likely to do the same.

Here in the United States, we have104 commercial nuclear reactors at 65 nuclear power plants in 31 States,” producing about 20% of U.S. total electricity. Here in Virginia, we have two operating nuclear facilities – North Anna, in Louisa County; and Surry, in Surry County – accounting for “almost a third of Virginia’s total generation.” The North Anna facility generates 1,806 megawatts from two pressurized light water reactors. The Surry facility has two pressurized light water reactors as well, each with capacity of 799 megawatts.

Could an accident like the one that happened in Japan occur here, in Virginia? I’d say “highly unlikely, but not impossible” (mainly because nothing’s impossible). For starters, the chances of a major earthquake as occurred in Japan are miniscule here in Virginia. Second, it’s hard to imagine any other natural disaster causing anything like what happened in Japan to happen here. So no, I wouldn’t be particularly worried, at least not here in Virginia (states with potential for strong earthquakes, like California, are a completely different story!).

In fact, U.S. coal-fired power plants are far worse from an environmental and human health perspective than nuclear plants. For instance, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are nine pollutants (CO2, SO2, NOx, particulates, CO, hydrocarbons, mercury, arsenic, lead) emitted by coal burning. In addition, according to this article, we should add barium, boron, nickel, aluminum, chromium, and others (selenium, uranium), most of which is captured from smokestacks but is then dumped into waterways. Lovely, eh? And that’s not even getting at the environmental and human health devastation caused by the mining of coal, particularly using the most egregious form of coal mining – mountaintop removal. Bottom line: here in Virginia at least, I’d be far more concerned about having a coal fired plant in my backyard than a nuclear plant.

Having said that, I certainly do have misgivings about nuclear power, and have not been a huge fan for a long time, even in spite of the fact that it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases or require mountains to be blown to smithereens. My three main issues with nuclear power power?

First, it’s extremely costly, pretty much the least “bang for the buck” of any energy source according to reports like this one. In contrast, energy efficiency – aka, “negawatts” – gives us the most bang for the buck of any other global warming solution. Energy efficiency is followed by 12 other energy sources – biomass cofiring, combined heat and power, wind, geothermal, etc. – before we finally get to nuclear power, which ranks above only “cleaner-coal”-based Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle.

Second, with Yucca Mountain apparently off the table, we have no permanent repository for radioactive waste generated by our nuclear power plants in this country. That’s not acceptable over the long haul.

Third, focusing on expensive nuclear power is simply diverting resources from the areas that offer us the greatest “bang for the buck” in terms of energy: energy efficiency #1 (by far!), combined heat and power (aka, cogeneration), offshore and onshore wind power, geothermal, etc. Even putting aside safety concerns, why waste our time and money on nuclear power? Certainly, we shouldn’t do so until we’ve exhausted all the “low hanging fruit” – energy efficiency, etc. – and that’s many decades away at least, assuming we get started today on an all-out effort in that regard.

  • I wonder if that’s because of a cultural difference in communication styles.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    My concern has always been on the long-term storage of spent fuel, plus the cost of decommissioning nuclear plants as they age. Those costs – like the social costs of coal pollution – are never factored into the kph prices that are bandied about. However, given the choice of living near a coal-fired plant or a nuclear one, I would take nuclear any day.

    “Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.” – Ronald Reagan, Labor Day 1980

  • Glen Tomkins

    Nuclear power plants could probably be made reasonably secure from natural disasters of even this magnitude we are seeing in Japan.  The reactor that had the explosion in Japan dated from the 70s, and is said to have been slated for retirement later this month.

    However, the regulatory regime necessary to ensure that such plants are built and operated with reasonable technical safety, cannot itself be secured from regulatory capture in our present political environment.

    We need to recognize that, in this country, we’ve already had containment breach in the human engineering safeguards that are supposed to keep the wealthy from bribing public officials.  Whatever theoretical technical safeguards there might be to any regulatory regime we put over nuclear power, the actual enforced level of security would end up being not one dollar’s worth more expensive than what the supposedly regulated industry wanted.  And the industry would only be interested in safety up to the point of accidents large enough that the costs would be socialized.  

    The industry wouldn’t want minor accidents every day.  They don’t want operating costs to rise, so the market would work to keep standards high enough that we wouldn’t have frequent incidents arising under normal conditions.  But the industry would have no incentive to spend dime one on preventing contingencies that, however great the resulting disaster, they would not be liable for the consequences.

    In a different world, in a world where we still had a US govt that could enforce at least the bare minimum of safety and fairness standards needed to allow a free market to operate without getting us all killed, maybe nuclear would have some part to play in getting us off fossil fuels.  But, in the world we actually live in — no way.

    It’s not just nuclear power.  On one front after another, we are blocked from the most needful change, all the good options are closed off, because our form of govt has degenerated into crony capitalism.

    Say what you will against the late unlamented Soviet Union, at least when the truth became increasingly clear in the 80s that their form of govt had degenerated into crony socialism, they had the courage to face that truth and change that govt.  We need glasnost and we need perestroika in this country.  I only hope that we can muster as much courage to face that fact in this land of the free and home of the brave, as a bunch of Communists did in the SU a generation ago.

  • jack russell

    I was talking with some folks about energy, and they were saying how we needed to build more nuclear.  My counter-argument has to do with the costs of the things.  

    Especially the insurance costs – no insurance company in their right mind would write a policy for a nuclear plant when once incident could theoretically bankrupt the entire company.  You just don’t have that problem with something mundane like auto insurance – accidents happen all the time, and the actuaries are able to work out what the correct costs for it should be.

  • NotJohnSMosby

    on building oceanside nuclear plants in an earthquake and tsunami-prone areas on the Pacific Ring of Fire.  The nuke plants survived the earthquake fairly well.  It was the tsunami, knocking out the primary and secondary safety systems, that did the real damage.  Apparently the backup diesel generators were all knocked out by the tsunami wave?  That’s a real design issue there.

    All in all, I think nuclear is a very valid way to go.  But, it has to be done carefully and logically.