March 15, 2011

Fukushima

Or, How I learned to Stop Start Worrying and Love Hate Nuclear Power.

The fear, initially, was that public reaction to the reactor accidents at Fukushima might scuttle the 'Nuclear Renaissance' blossoming across the globe as a necessary component in battling the threat of Global Warming. Could Fukushima's ultimate legacy be vast environmental damage caused not by radiation, but rather by turning public opinion against nuclear power generation?

Just before 9 pm last night, Fox News anchor Brit Hume was talking about this exact concern and its political implications. Problem was, Brit's segment was taped. And as he was noting how relatively little radiation had been released thus far, and how government officials expected no harmful levels of radiation, and how the Fukushima reactor proved that modern engineering could make nuclear power safe even in the face of a historic earthquake and tsunami—as Brit was relating these reassuring official statements, they were suddenly, grotesquely revealed to be false by the live ticker-tape scroll underneath him, which noted that there was now a containment breach in Reactor No. 2, that radiation levels outside the plant had skyrocketed, that winds were now carrying radiation directly toward Tokyo.

***

Fukushima has quashed one of the misconceptions I've long had about nuclear reactors, and it turns out to be a big one: you can't quickly shut them down. I had always believed that once you put the control rods into a reactor core, the reaction halted, and you no longer needed to worry about meltdown. Not so.

Even with the control rods in the reactor core, as Fukushima engineers implemented immediately after the earthquake began, the fuel rods continue to require constant cooling otherwise the reactor core will melt down. In other words: you can't shut it down. If that is the reality of nuclear power generation, it seems to me there is only one meaningful design standard that must be satisfied if we are to safely employ nuclear reactors: can the plant survive a core meltdown without releasing massive amounts of radiation?

Because otherwise you have to be arrogant enough to believe that humans can engineer cooling systems that can never fail. There is almost an elegance to the way that nature, in the form of earthquake and tsunami, defeated Fukushima's state-of-the-art engineering. The diesel power generators, the last line of defense, were located in an area that flooded.

Don't leap up and say, 'aha, those morons, they put the generators under water!' It is the nature of our blind spots that we cannot see them until after they are pointed out to us. If humans keep building nuclear reactors, it is inevitable that a small number of them will melt down. The question is, can we live with that?

***

Fukushima's location makes it almost ideal as a site for a nuclear reactor (compared to, for example, San Onofre). It sits on the eastern side of Japan, and prevailing winds blow east, across the Pacific, such that most of the radiation released should dissipate over unpopulated ocean. Additionally, there still exists the possibility that, via heroic and mortal effort, Japanese workers will manage to contain most of the radiation until such time as the reactors can more permanently be entombed.

On the other hand, reactor accidents have a sort of unbounded quality: they set in motion cascading events with unpredictable and far-reaching consequences (such as the release of radiation trapped in spent fuel rods at the plant site). For now, we can only wait to see what will unfold in Japan. But we owe it to ourselves and our planet to think carefully about our nuclear bargain—especially if we are considering turning toward it now to save us from a carbon fueled climate-catastrophe.

We can look at Fukushima, as Brit Hume did, and see a sort of triumph of human engineering and ingenuity: look, it took an earthquake of historic proportions to defeat our technology. But that doesn't change the reality that we were still, in fact, defeated. No matter how clever our engineers are, cooling systems will fail. Reactor cores will melt down. If we can't live with that, we can't live with nuclear power.

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Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow


5 thoughts on “Fukushima

  1. Dan Conger says:

    Hey Andy,

    I had been a proponent of the new state of the art nuclear power movement until this quake. The fact is, nature is powerful enough to destroy all of our efforts in a few minutes time. When one looks at the implications of the possible nuclear fallout heading towards the world’s most densely populated city, Tokyo, it becomes painfully clear that despite all of our planning and precaution vast devastation can and does take place.

    It is indeed human arrogance that believes we can prevent such catastrophes. After this quake, I’m not sure that nuclear power is the answer to our carbon crisis and global warming. I suppose time will tell …

  2. Scott says:

    This isn’t an inherent problem of nuclear power, it’s a major problem of reactor architecture that is left over from the first nuclear power plants in the 50’s. It is possible to design nuclear power plants that are self-quenching, e.g. when you cut the power they just fizzle out and do nothing. The problem is that these are more expensive, use different fuels, and are less efficient than the standard light-water reactors we’ve been using for 60 years. Maybe with this disaster we’ll see renewed interest (and more importantly, money) in reactor redesign.

    Maybe I’m just an arrogant engineer, but I do believe we can design our way out of such catastrophes. What it takes is a better imagination and a healthier respect for the worst-case scenario.

  3. Andy says:

    I would guess most people, like me, assumed a core meltdown could not happen in a modern reactor without some sort of gross malfunction or human incompetence.

    The reality that even de-powered reactors require continuous and massive cooling for long periods of time makes a mockery of that notion.

    In other words, I really had no idea how easy it is to lose control of a nuclear reactor.

  4. Dan Conger says:

    We’ve always thought that we could out-engineer disaster. Our scientists have made incredibly brilliant advances in technology across the board and minimized the losses associated with major catastrophes. I am very thankful that modern bridges, buildings, and even civil design of city layouts is improving our chances of suffering minimal losses in major catastrophes.

    What we do need to remember, however, is that over and over again in human history, we have been humbled profoundly by the raw power of nature. An avalanche destroys an entire Swiss village, overwhelming all of their modern avalanche defenses. An earthquake measuring 7.2 (not the unthinkable 9.1) collapses a portion of the Bay Bridge here in SF/Oakland and devastates the Nimitz Freeway, a flood completely overwhelms a well prepared town that was thought to be to high up to be at risk. The Titanic was the ship that even God couldn’t sink.

    The Earth is quite capable of completely overwhelming our best defenses. Facing that undeniable reality, the question becomes what risks are we willing to take. I’ve long thought (and ardently argued) that nuclear power in its modern safety is the answer to our energy/global warming crisis. However, based on what is happening in Japan, that confidence has been profoundly shaken. Perhaps I’m just responding emotionally based upon fear, but I’m not sure.

    The western half of our nation is susceptible to massive earthquakes and volcanic events, the midwest to floods and tornadoes, and the east to hurricanes. Where then do we build these power plants? I have one answer … NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). Avoiding catastrophe completely is impossible, and simultaneously divorcing ourselves from all risk is not an option and we need to find a solution. However, I am just not confident that the risks associated with nuclear power are acceptable given the fact that the Earth has a tendency to swat away our best efforts at prevention in a moment.

  5. Colin says:

    Andy,

    Good comments. A lot of this stuff has been running through my mind recently (i.e. how this will affect the effort to combat GW).

    One word: Thorium.

    Seems like a viable option, from all I’ve read.

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