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.