March 15, 2011


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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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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