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Nuclear Meltdown


© Matt Davies

The only thing heating up more than the Japanese Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant is the propaganda war here in the US over whether we should use nuclear power to help solve our energy needs. I don’t have the answer, but I do know that the arguments being made by both sides are unlikely to help us come to a rational decision about this.

I’ll also say that I don’t have anything against nuclear power. I think that any problems with it can be solved. But what really scares me is the nuclear power industry.

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26 Comments

  1. Eric Vinyard wrote:

    And the fact that someone, somewhere, is likely to make something cheaper than they should, and someone else is going to skip out on that one extra inch they should have taken when putting the thing in place. No matter how much you plan for an eventuality, Murphy’s Law dominates.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 7:32 am | Permalink
  2. Sammy wrote:

    The three main problems with nuclear power are human error, natural disasters and the thousands of years’ storage needed to deal with radioactive waste half life. Nuclear *can* be clean, but when something goes wrong (and something always goes wrong), it goes really really wrong with nuclear.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    Good sensible article about the risks from the Japanese nuclear accident http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2011/0317/Fear-of-Japan-s-nuclear-crisis-far-exceeds-actual-risks-say-scientists

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  4. Jason Ray wrote:

    Nuclear power generation, even with all it’s problems, is better than burning coal or oil. Coal actually releases more radioactives into the environment than nuclear, not to mention all the other issues.

    We’ve been making great advances in sola and wind power, but unforrtunately there just isn’t enough sun at Earth surface or enough consistently windy places to use those sources for all our electrical needs. We’ve already exploited just about every hydro power location without doing even more damage to the environment, so that’s not an option either.

    Our best bet for the future is advanced fuel cells (like Bloom Energy) and I have long been a fan of space-based solar (which would address every energy need) but it’s unlikely to get built since the up front costs are very high and no one is yet excited about putting giant microwave rectennas in their neighborhood ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  5. Drew wrote:

    To me it seems like so many people are looking at this the wrong way around. You’ve got people saying that this is proof that no matter how strong you build a nuclear reactor, it will still be subject to natural disasters. I look at this and see a reactor that survived a 1,000 year event and which even in what currently seems to be the worst case scenario will have still relatively minor and local effects, both immediate and long term, compared to many non-nuclear industries. We’ve seen industrial accidents kill thousands of people, or destroy environments for decades, even without natural causes. (BP, anyone?) We’ve seen power plants and factories do more damage to the environment in the course of normal operation than this plant will likely do as a result of the fifth largest earthquake in recorded history.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  6. PatriotSGT wrote:

    Eric and Sammy – I somewhat to mostly agree with what you’ve said, but would like to add on to the conversation.
    For safety, nuclear has a good track record with the exception of Chernobyl, which was a poor design with poorly trained personnel disaster waiting to happen. Most nuclear plants and all in the US are higher quality design then Chernobyl and many are 4th generation. Problem is they are so expensive and currently not allowed to build new that the Gov’t simply renews the licenses for existing facilities. IMO if the gov’t established a wear out date (say 40 years) and then the facility would have to go off line and be dismantled, and a next generation plant built to replace it we would be safer. Japanโ€™s plant was a 1st generation facility. It took the brunt of a 9.0 earthquake and equally powerful tsunami. It is failing but amazingly withstood the initial assault by mother nature. If it had been a 4th generation plant, it might still be producing electricity today.
    The US Navy has been using nuclear power for many of its ships since 1953 and I know of no accidents/incidents involving its nuclear program, despite having to face harsh weather, multiple personnel changes and other issues. So I guess the US record is very good.
    That being said, we can always improve. I don’t know of another equally viable source to replace it with at this time so I guess we need it for now. The problem of disposal is an issue that needs to be regulated, improved and supervised.
    Lastly, we cannot prevent everything. There are always new volcanos, asteroids, some new terroist group that will ruin our day, but we can eliminate commonsense threats like the several reactors sitting near the san andreas fault in CA. They should be shut down, dismantled and moved to a safer location. They are a tragedy waiting to happen. A 9.0 or higher quake is not a matter of if, but when for CA I’ve heard.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    PatriotSgt, I agree with you. Two minor nits: in addition to Chernobyl you should mention Three Mile Island. Also, the fact that you know of no incidents involving the military’s use of nuclear power on its ships and submarines is only significant if you believe that we would have heard about any of those incidents.

    I totally agree with you about assessing risks. We Americans are completely ass-backward about risks. I read the headlines about people in the US buying iodine pills, and think that these same people probably drive after having had a few drinks — a risk orders of magnitude greater than the risk from radiation.

    Jason, we also seem to be fixated on large, centralized power generation. I’d like to see more smaller, decentralized power generation come online. Especially for solar, but also for wind. Heck, we already use nuclear power in a distributed manner — for ships and spaceships. Large, centralized power generation facilities will always be more susceptible to terrorist attack.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  8. Tom wrote:

    I’m concerned that in Japan where taking shortcuts is a loss of honor, apparently shortcuts were taking. Imagine if BP were Japanese. Tony Hayward certainly wouldn’t ask for his life back.

    In the US it’s just seen as making the most profit for stakeholders, I can only imagine that there are US plants with spent rods at risk.

    If nothing else, we need to determine if the predictions of events that could happen to our reactors are reasonable and allow an adequate
    margin of error. Let’s also resolve our spent rods problem before we build new and increase the number of spent rods.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  9. ebdoug wrote:

    I saw a video on APnews done by the head of the nuclear power companies in Japan or the contractor. He was unmistakably from the US. Not even slightly Japanese in looks or accents. I wondered about short cuts.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  10. Iron Knee wrote:

    Eva, do you mean this kind of shortcut?
    http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/fukushima-mark-nuclear-reactor-design-caused-ge-scientist/story?id=13141287

    Those power stations were built by GE, and 35 years ago three GE engineers quit over safety issues of that particular design.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  11. PatriotSGT wrote:

    IK – the decentralized smaller unit nuclear power generators IMO are the way of the future. Small scale is more managable and can power everything from ships, to planes and trains, individual factories and even homes and cars. We havn’t developed the technology yet for all those applications, but we could. It wouldn’t have the issues of cloudless/windless days or the pollution/greenhouse gas effects of fossil fuels. Even better is cold fusion, once thought of as a myth, but is getting closer to reality and could lead to replacing all other energy sources and making my suggestions a reality.
    http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-01-italian-scientists-cold-fusion-video.html

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  12. Jason Ray wrote:

    @IK – Decentralized power is good, that’s why I like Bloom Energy, although in many cases it uses LNG so it’s not a fully sustainable option either. It is better applied to smaller scale uses, however – it’s possible to power individual homes using wind, solar, etc for many homes. But it isn’t possible to power a manufacturing plant, or an office building, and similar large consumers of power.

    Centralized power systems are vulnerable, but efficient. Another argument in favor of space based solar – the only part the terroprists can reach is the rectenna, it’s difficult to destroy enough of one to make a difference, and even if they did all you would do is shut off the microwave beam for a couple of days until new wires got strung ๐Ÿ™‚ Much less of an impact than a meltdown ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  13. ebdoug wrote:

    The person I saw was an American in Tokyo now who was introduced as someone in charge of the nuclear power and assured us that there would be no problmes. This was before the meltdown, after the earthquake. Maybe someone else saw it. I googled but couldn’t find a name. Can’t find it again.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  14. Dan wrote:

    Turkey Point South of Miami took all of what hurricane Andrew could dish out, the plant near me was right in the middle of a flood, my understanding is the one in Japan, had the back-up power gens that take over the water circulation are in the “basement” and got flooded.
    I see the big problem as spent fuel, like everyone else, NOT IN MY BACKYARD!

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  15. starluna wrote:

    Generally, I am not a support of nuclear power for two reasons: 1) uranium mining in the US is primarily done on Native American Indian reservations and has created some very serious environmental injustices; and 2) offsite spent fuel cell storage has historically been done on Native American Indian reservations with similar injustices. The health and environmental costs that are being shouldered by some of the poorest and most politically marginalized people in this country is something that I personally cannot support.

    Also, it should be clear by now that this plant did not really withstand this earthquake/tsunami. Indeed, the first decision made to try to control this unfolding disaster was to use sea water to keep it from getting worse. This decision effectively killed the reactor. Even if they could have gotten under control in the first attempts to control things, that reactor was never going to come back online. I will give kudos to the Japanese power plant people for making this decision because it shows they prioritized the health and safety of the population over the sustainability of the plant, something that a nuclear engineer here in the US reported on Diane Rehm show implied would not necessarily happen here in the US.

    While I agree that coal and oil power plants do more chronic damage to our health and environment, if the Fukushima reactor is not controlled, it will cause an enormous amount of damage that most Americans cannot even comprehend. You have to remember that Japan does not have a lot of land. This power plant is located in one of their few agricultural regions. If that plant releases even a moderately high amount of radiation, Japan is going to lose an important proportion of their agricultural land. From a food security perspective, this is problematic; food is already expensive in Japan. From a cultural perspective, this would be devastating to the Japanese who have prided themselves on being more self-sufficient than most other industrialized countries.

    I would say that this is time to do some soul searching on the nuclear power issue. This is not like other types of low-probability/high impact risks. Airplane crashes rarely happen and when they do, they kill lots of people. It directly affects the people in the airplanes and their families. But when a nuclear accident happens, it not only affects the individuals exposed to radiation, but the genetic damage can impact any offspring survivors have in the future, and it also destroys the exposed environment. The long term consequences of even a generally low probability event are what make nuclear power a qualitatively different risk. And since we do have other options for creating electricity (not the least of which is conservation) we really should think this through.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  16. BTN wrote:

    Drew is right. Even in the US, it’s truly amazing at the amount of toxic material that makes it into our air and groundwater (I’ll take coal ash spill for $1000, Alex). I think wind turbines are the most environmetally friendly energy source.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  17. Iron Knee wrote:

    Starluna, is it fair to say you agree with me? Your beef isn’t with nuclear power itself, but with the nuclear industry and what they do.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink
  18. starluna wrote:

    I’m not sure that you can separate what the industry does from the nature of this form of electricity generation. There is no form of mining that is safe for the humans involved or the environment. It does not matter if we are talking uranium, coal, or gold. And you cannot get away from the inherent very high risks and problems with long term storage of spent fuel, at least not now. And given that there are not many places on the planet that are not subject to some form of natural disaster, there is only so much engineering for safety that can be done when you think in terms of decades or centuries. The industry could be run God, Yahweh, and Allah-certified angels and you would still have these problems.

    I think right now, our focus should be on whether the potential long term consequences of even the low probability hazard. My concern is that people have the idea that there are few options available for electricity generation (partly industry fueled, and partly lack of imagination), and therefore nuclear has to be one of them. I do not necessarily agree that there are few choices and given the very long term catastrophic consequences to both humans and the environment, we really need to be a lot more thoughtful than we have been about whether this is the right choice. This is difficult because there are not very many risks that are similar to this.

    I believe we need to think about nuclear much differently than we have done so far. And if we choose to continue to use it, then we have to do a much better job of mining the core material, constructing and operating the plants, and safely storing spent fuel.

    Friday, March 18, 2011 at 7:58 am | Permalink
  19. Trip Ericson wrote:

    Starluna, what you’re forgetting is that modern reactor designs can make use of what we currently consider “waste,” meaning that not only do we not have to store the stuff indefinitely, but what comes out at the other end of that process would only need to be stored in time measured in decades rather than thousands of years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_Fast_Reactor

    In addition, since we would be using the existing spent fuel to power these reactors, mining could decrease significantly as alternative mining methods are researched.

    Of course, all of that assumes that this technology is ready to go, which is something I don’t know. I feel like this should at least be researched, even if the research leads nowhere, if only to get rid of the waste of the plants we already have.

    Friday, March 18, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink
  20. Iron Knee wrote:

    I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned Thorium as a nuclear fuel. See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/7970619/Obama-could-kill-fossil-fuels-overnight-with-a-nuclear-dash-for-thorium.html

    Thorium is way more abundant than Uranium, it is considered a waste-product in current mining operations for rare earth metals, so no new mining operations would be required. One ton of Thorium could produce as much energy as 200 tons of Uranium, and 3.5 million tons of coal. And one of Thorium’s biggest advantages is ironically why we aren’t currently using it — it doesn’t create plutonium, the necessary ingredient for nuclear weapons. The military wanted plutonium, so our current power reactors were built so they could supply it, using Uranium as fuel.

    Friday, March 18, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  21. Jason Ray wrote:

    @IK – Thorium is better for commercial reactors, thanks for bringing that up ๐Ÿ™‚

    @Starluna – I agree with the points you raise. The problem, however, is that all our current methods of generating “cleaner” power are insufficient to fully power an industrial society. That’s not to say we shouldn’t use clean power everywhere we possibly can – because we SHOULD. And every house that goes off the grid saves us a bit of industrial demand, and the industrial and business loads could be supplied by fewer, safer systems.

    The other issue which we need to address is that power generation that uses non-renewable resources are problematic in the long term. This is somewhat less of a problem for nuclear power right now because of the efficiency and the current supply, but even that will be a problem eventually. There are only two power sources that will really work over the long haul – space based solar and fusion. We don’t yet have the ability to build fusion reactors, and no one wants to spend money on space based solar, so that leaves us stuck where we are.

    Just to be clear – I am not a fan of nuclear power. I just think that when compared to other major industrial sources (coal and oil) it’s by far the lesser of the evils. We should vigorously deploy as much clean energy generation as possible, and we should move to implement better industrial power with the technology we have (clean coal and Bloom Energy). We will still need to build some new nuclear plants around the world, but the number can be reduced.

    Also, just FYI for those that aren’t physics buffs, when someone tells you that some nuclear waste will be radioactive for millions of years, thats a GOOD thing. Radiation comes from particle decay, and the more time it takes for the particles to decay the less radiation they are emitting. I would much rather be living next to a salt cave with waste that has a half life of 1,000,000 than waste that has a half life of 2 years ๐Ÿ™‚ The most dangerous fallout byproduct (iodine isotope 131) has a half life of about 8 days, which makes it REALLY nasty.

    Friday, March 18, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  22. starluna wrote:

    Jason – you are right that a fully industrialized nation needs a large and consistent source of electricity. But if you look at the numbers, energy intensity (energy use per $GDP) in the US has been declining for a long time because of the declining industrial sector and because we are becoming more efficient. Per capita energy use has increased primarily because of consumer electricity demand.

    From what I’ve learned from my friends who do energy research consulting, the US has a significant efficiency problem. This problem is related to the poor design and condition of our electricity distribution system and because of our reliance on relatively smaller number of large power plants that make the bulk of our electricity. Most of these folks argue that distributed, smaller scale (and renewable) electricity generation systems would supply the vast majority of household and business energy needs.

    The other problem that they point to is that we are simply using an enormous amount of electricity and a significant portion of that is really unnecessary; it is either inefficient or it is simply to power things that perhaps don’t need to be powered constantly (think of all of the downtown businesses that keep their lights on all night). I would argue that part of the rethinking of all of our electricity generation needs should include a more thorough discussion about conservation.

    About five years ago, there were a ton of proposals to build peaking power plants here in MA. In every case, they argued about the need (in reality, they were responding to the development of a new market mechanism created by the state). And then one of the larger peaking power plants blew up. The developers pointed to that as a reason to expedite the permitting process, especially because this happened in one of our worst summers ever. The state refused to do that (to its credit) and it turned out that not a single peaker was used at all that summer and that there was in fact more energy being produced locally than being consumed locally.

    So, while I hear you on the need end, I would argue that we really need to be more thoughtful about what our needs really are.

    Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  23. Jason Ray wrote:

    Starluna – completely agree. It’s irresponsible to consume non-renewable resources, while damaging health and the environment to produce power that we shouldn’t need. Every bit helps – that’s why I am crossing my fingers that Bloom Energy cracks the mass manufacturing problem because that solution does generate enough electricity to power industrial and business buildings as well as homes, is almost an order of magnitude more efficient while also being clean, and can be deployed almost anywhere.

    One thing we have to all keep in mind is that thanks to the rising power of the international interdepedence, the greatest increases in demand for power are not here in the US – they are in India and China, and more “Third World” countries will follow in the future. Because of that, our global needs will continue to rise significantly and if we keep burning coal and oil we are accelerating the environmental problems globally and adding yet another drain on our non-renewable resources.

    I still like space based solar, but I am hopeful that fusion becomes a reality since it’s easier to deploy ๐Ÿ™‚ And there may be ways to tap other sources in an effective way – tidal power generation is an option, for example, and who knows what we may learn as our nanotech knowledge increases ๐Ÿ™‚

    Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  24. RK wrote:

    Are we really becoming more efficient? The GDP is rapidly becoming meaningless. How much of the GDP is earned outside of the US? I’ll bet you can’t even track most of the money. So numbers like energy use/$ GDP can’t be relied upon.

    Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  25. starluna wrote:

    I too was surprised to learn about the efficiency gains in our remaining industry. I do think it has at least as much to do with the fact that most old industry, and potentially really inefficient, has already left the country.

    I can’t say I’m entirely clear on the use of GDP in that measure, but I understand that what energy intensity is trying to measure is the amount of energy used per productivity. At the national scale, the primary measure of productivity is GDP. I’m not a big fan of GDP either, given how it is measured. But if you want to understand how much energy is used in economic activity, this is the one that is most commonly used.

    Jason – I agree with you on the global issue. That is a whole other level of technical and moral complexity.

    Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  26. RK wrote:

    I just learned there are real efforts to replace the GDP with other measures.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/6189582/Nicolas-Sarkozy-wants-well-being-measure-to-replace-GDP.html

    Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink