When in my last blog I noted the very early reports of an initial explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, I also suggested this would be a problem for the large-scale nuclear power plant industry. An obvious point. What we did not know on Saturday was that two or three more plants within the larger complex would go into critical failure, with exploding containment buildings and even one report of a breech of the core containment.
Now on March 15 it is becoming clear that the situation was significantly underestimated early on, and that a potential catastrophe looms. The nuclear plants themselves are failing one by one, but worse, the nuclear waste containment pools have begun to fail as well. To my surprise the waste containment pools in these older model plants are situated on the roof of each power plant building. The pools are, according to reports, 40 feet by 40 feet, and 45 feet deep. On the bottom of each pools sits spent nuclear fuel. The word spent is a bit misleading, as this fuel is capable of becoming very hot, burning, and tossing huge amounts of deadly radiation into the air, the equivalent of a dirty bomb.
The earthquake and tsunami that disrupted or destroyed the cooling circulation for the reactors themselves also destroyed the circulation to the waste pools. Now, with the roofs blown off of two of the reactor buildings, and the water reportedly boiling in one of the pools and the side of another breached, it becomes increasingly likely that we will see very large releases of radioactivity. The latest plan is to use helicopters to drop water into the pools, something that sounds like a pretty desperate measure.
Here is the point of discussing this disaster, when much more detailed descriptions are available. Like many futurists, along with environmentalists like Stewart Brand, in recent years I have become more interested in the prospects for nuclear energy as part of the solution to global warming. I have been clear that large-scale reactors like those at Fukushima were problematic for two reasons. One problem is that private industry will not take the risk of building these plants without massive public subsidies, which by itself suggests they may not be good bets for the future. The other is that while the safety record of these plants has been good, the risks when a catastrophe inevitably occurs is almost incalculable, up to and including vast areas uninhabitable. As I write this Japan has declared a “no-fly” zone over the Fukushima region, and is literally relying on workers to accept near suicide conditions to try to combat the emergency. As Eugene Robinson notes today, this all starts to “look like a bargain with the devil.”
Wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy – yes, scaling them up is a huge undertaking. But none of them can suffer this kind of disaster with consequences that can last for centuries. Perhaps there will still be a future for very small-scale nuclear plants, the kind the Energy Secretary Chu has touted. This is something that requires a lot more study. While the middle of disasters is a bad time to make predictions, the future of large-scale traditional nuclear power looks bleak, and appropriately so.
[Update: The first response to this blog prompted me to dig some more regarding the cost/benefit of nuclear power as an answer to global warming. One of the more interesting sources I came across today is a 2006 report from the Institute for Energy and Environment Research, by Bruce Smith, entitle “Insurmountable Risks.” He presents an interesting case that nuclear is generally much more expensive than people assume (and this explains why massive subsidies are required to build new plants), and that these costs are increasing rapidly. Investors understand that a 2 billion dollar investment can turn into a 1 billion dollar clean up in about 90 minutes. But mostly he anticipates (in 2006 remember) the kind of one-off catastrophes we are currently witnessing, arguing that such events are not unlikely but rather inevitable given the complexity of the machines, the fallibility of human operators, the fickleness of weather and geology, and enough time. The money quote may be this one, in which Smith himself cites an MIT study…
…the expense and unique vulnerabilities associated with nuclear power would make it a very risky, unsustainable, and uncertain option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As the authors of the MIT report themselves conclude:
The potential impact on the public from safety or waste management failure and the link to nuclear explosives technology are unique to nuclear energy among energy supply options. These charac- teristics and the fact that nuclear is more costly, make it impossible today to make a credible case for the immediate expanded use of nuclear power.
I also noticed this article today, an interview with a Russian official involved in the Chernobyl cleanup, in which he warns that the industry is not good at putting safety over profit.
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