thoughts and prayers go out to the Japanese people in the wake of Fukushima
Plant and its difficult cleanup and containment process. The disaster was
yesterday upgraded from a Level 5 to a Level 7 disaster.
That formally puts it in a tie for the worst ranked disaster with
Russia's 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine.
It is important to exercise caution when assessing this upgrade. Many are
already declaring that the disaster may be worse than Chernobyl,
given food and seawater contamination. However, the extent
of the environmental impact and contamination of the food supply remains to be
As bad as the Japanese nuclear disaster is, it may create far worse fallout of
an economic and political variety, internationally. It may effectively
kill, or at least seriously cripple in the short term, new nuclear development
in the U.S. and abroad via both negative public sentiment and political posturing.
And that's a shame.
I. The Death of New Nuclear?
The Japanese disaster, much like Chernobyl, was due to gross negligence.
The plant's designers built a reactor in a region prone to flooding by
monsoons and tsunamis, yet failed to waterproof the plant's backup
generators. As they say, hindsight is 20-20, but the plant's backup
systems were an exercise in shortsightedness.
The quake did show that even ancient reactors are virtually impervious to
significant damage from the most powerful of earthquakes. The plant
received extremely little damage due to the quake and was able to complete
normal shutdown operations.
The only serious problem -- the one that caused this mess -- was the flooding.
Much of the focus of the sensationalist media has been on the "risk" of earthquake damage to the
U.S. But the real lesson of Fukushima is that quakes aren't likely
catastrophic in and of themselves -- but loss of backup power can be.
Rather than reassessing all nuclear power plants in the U.S. for
direct quake damage, the government should be focusing its review on backup
systems in quake, mudslide, or flood-prone regions like Louisiana, California,
II. Aging Reactors vs. New Reactors
Even given the Japanese public's new fear of nuclear power, it's unlikely that
they'll shut down the nation's other plants like the Monju or Tokai
Nuclear Power Plants. Likewise, the U.S. is unlikely to take its nuclear
power plants offline.
What will happen is plans for new plants will
likely be shelved in both regions. In this regard, public fear is creating an
Many modern reactor designs are physically incapable of a
traditional meltdown/partial-meltdown like occurred at Fukushima and Chernobyl.
Examples of such meltdown-proof designs include pebble-bed reactors and
Thorium fuel reactor designs.
The damaged Fukushima plant was scheduled to begin decommissioning just a month
after when the quake hit. One of the reactors had been in operation for
over 40 years.
You could tear down every legacy nuclear power plant in the U.S. and Japan and
then rebuild brand new plants. Not only would you get much more energy;
you'd also dramatically improve your safety.
By delaying the deployment of modern reactors, the life of legacy plants is
prolonged far past when it should be. In short, public fear may
ultimately be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by impeding the advent of
III. Nuclear v. Fossil Fuels
People tend to quickly brush aside the cost of life and environmental
contamination of fossil fuels. Fukushima may seem bad, but the Deepwater
Horizon spill of last year did at least a comparable level of environmental damage.
And like the Fukushima spill it contaminated food products (seafood)
harvested in the vicinity.
But unlike the Fukushima plant, which has thus far only injured people, it
actually killed workers.
Now nuclear power is by no means safe. But neither is the life cycle of
fossil fuels. Oil prospecting is still a risky business. BP's
executives compared deep sea oil drilling to executing a space mission -- one
wrong move and you're in a terrible situation.
Every year miners lose their lives to cancer and accidents in coal mines in
order to provide America's primary source of electrical power. And every
decade there has been a major coal mining accident that led
to numerous deaths. Yes, uranium mining is also dangerous, but people
tend to forget how dangerous fossil fuels are, far more often than they forget
the dangers associated with nuclear energy
Nuclear power offers an alternative to coal power. And if electric vehicles see sufficient deployment, it
may one day be able to greatly reduce oil dependence as well.
While both fossil fuels and nuclear have their risks, nuclear power -- except
in cases of gross negligence -- has virtually no emissions. By contrast
the burning of fossil fuels produces carcinogenic hydrocarbons, sulfides, and
nitrides, which damage both human health and the environment.
Nuclear waste is certainly a problem, but again this was a far greater problem
with legacy designs like those in Japan. With modern reactors spent
nuclear fuel can be applied to rebreeding reactions, reducing waste
to a negligible amount. Better yet, some of these modern reactors can
reduce spent fuel from legacy designs, easing the transition process, as well.
Negative views on nuclear power largely come from a handful of incidents in which
engineers ignored glaring design flaws and suffered the consequences of their
negligence. Overall nuclear is attractive versus fossil fuels.
It also stacks up favorably versus other forms of alternative energy.
Geothermal, tidal, and wave power all seem promising, but they are highly
location specific and, in the case of the latter two sources, the devices to
harvest them are still in their infancy.
Hydroelectric sounds great, but it creates immense environmental damage and a
huge safety risk. The failure of the Banqiao Dam in southern China
killed 26,000 people. Another 145,000 died of epidemics as a
result of the dam burst. And millions were left homeless. That's
far worse than any nuclear accident -- Chernobyl or Fukushima. Numerous
smaller hydroelectric accidents have occurred in the U.S. and other nations.
Solar and wind are both relatively "safe" power sources, but they're
far more expensive than nuclear and they're intermittent. The sun doesn't
always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, but people are using power 24-7.
Thus clearly society cannot solely rely on these power sources.
At the end of the day, nuclear seems like a viable option -- perhaps the best
power option --- when surveyed with an objective, rational, scientific mindset.
Of course if you buy into media sensationalism, you might perceive
the picture far differently.
IV. Nuclear Disaster Classification -- a Flawed Scale
The Fukushima Disaster was upgraded [press
release] to a "Level 7" disaster on the International
Nuclear Event Scale (INES) by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
As only one other event of this scale has occurred -- Chernobyl -- people
automatically assume these two events are comparable.
In a way they are.
As outlined, both events resulted from gross negligence. Both required
evacuations. And both will require substantial cleanup and removal of
But on the other hand the classification totally fails to assess the true
damage to human health.
Fukushima has led to three direct worker injuries due to radiation exposure.
These workers were inside the plant. Thus far there have been no
reported deaths from the accident.
By contrast Chernobyl reportedly resulted in 64 direct deaths, including 31
direct deaths of workers (to put this in comparison, the Deepwater
Horizon explosion killed 11 people). Hundreds of workers were
By all indications the direct damage in the Chernobyl situation was far worse
due to sloppy handling. There was a significant loss of life, compared to no
loss of life in the current situation. But the ranking system
utterly fails to capture this information. The INES is a system designed
by some very smart people. But in its inability to relay this critical
information, it is quite a "dumb" system.
Now it's worth pointing out that levels of atmospheric radioactive iodine-131
and caesium-137 internationally have risen to levels [source]
not seen since Chernobyl. While this does not indicate ANY substantial
risk to most of the world, it does likely indicate a major localized radiation
release in Japan. This release, like the release at Chernobyl, will
likely elevate cancer rates -- and in some cases cause potentially fatal cancers.
But again this event is still significantly different from Chernobyl in overall
impact and it would be highly desirably for the scale to reflect this, which it
currently does not.
At the end of the day the Fukushima situation is an unsavory one. But
Americans should not let the mistakes of corner cutting Japanese engineers
cripple American innovation.
It's important to remember the facts here.
There has been a significant release of radiation. The blame for that
rest jointly on tsunami flooding (note there was NO significant damage from the
earthquake) and on gross negligence on the part of the Japanese nuclear
engineers who designed the plant's safety systems. But thus far no one
No form of power is safe. But to criticize nuclear power due a bungle at
an ancient "dirty" legacy reactor is insanity. Many modern
nuclear reactor designs are utterly incapable of nuclear meltdown, produce
virtually no waste, and output much more power.
Modern nuclear reactors offer one of the most affordable, safe, and reliable
alternative energy sources that America has access to today. To turn our
backs on that energy source due to incompetence of a handful of Japanese
designers would be selling our children -- and our nation -- short.