Saturday, March 19, 2011


The earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster in Japan have reawakened the decades old debate on the safety and practicality of nuclear energy to produce electric power. While opponents of the use of nuclear energy were still active and vocal before the Japanese incident, most of the world’s governments had moved beyond the fears and disaster scenarios that energized the anti-nuclear movements and accepted the cost-benefit analysis that made nuclear power generation a common sense alternative to other forms of energy production. The question now facing governments is whether that cost-benefit relationship has substantially changed.

There is no question that the Japanese nuclear plant disaster represents a serious cascade of failures both technological and human. This ongoing situation which seems to be growing in severity has stimulated anti-nuclear power voices world wide. In Australia, which has no nuclear power electric generation, the local Greens Party has called for phasing out nuclear power world wide, which they call a "toxic and obsolete technology.

In Germany, Chancellor Merkel shut down seven older nuclear plants for three months and delayed plans to modernize another ten. Switzerland has put plans for three new reactors on hold. Even in China, which has a robust nuclear growth strategy with plans to build twenty-eight new reactors by 2020, the Japanese situation has brought a pause in these plans in order that "safety standards could be revised" and inspections carried out on all existing plants.

It is obvious that some of these positions are based on genuine concern and common sense, given the lessons that are to be learned from the Japanese crisis. But it is also likely that there is a political component in most. Germany has a committed anti-nuclear core with the Green Party, which currently has 20% support in the country. Germany also has no majority party and the Greens have 68 of 622 seats in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house.

However, a major shift in domestic nuclear policy has also been rejected so far in a number of countries. France, Russia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland have rejected the German position and criticized demands for immediate shutdowns. Russia is under contract to build Turkey's first nuclear power plant and both nations have announced that they won't change their plans. Poland, with plans for its first two nuclear plants and the Czech Republic which has six operating plants, have also rejected slow downs or moratoriums. In France, the government has limited its announced policy to safety inspections. In Britain, "Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said "continental politicians" had acted hastily in shutting down power plants. "

The world's leading user of nuclear power for the production of electricity is the United States with 104 nuclear generating plants. American anti-nuclear activists are energized by the crisis and are calling for moratoriums and decertification of existing plants. Ira Helfand, past president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a bit of rhetorical overkill said "a meltdown of each reactor at Japanese plant would be the equivalent of a thousand Hiroshimas." However, there is currently little enthusiasm by members of either political party in Congress for major changes or reductions in nuclear power electrical generation.

The Obama Administration has supported further development of nuclear generation facilities and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winning physicist himself, has testified recently in Congress about the need for money ($36 billion in loan guarantees) to assist private power companies build six to eight new plants. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) who has a nuclear power plant in his district said: "I think (the Japan crisis) is a wake-up call to look very seriously at the safety of (nuclear) reactors to make sure that they are, in fact, as secure as we can possibly make them from natural disasters, as well as manmade attacks on them."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was equally cautious:
"I don't think there should be a mad rush to say nuclear power generation is bad."
"There will be some activity, some hearings. I think there's nothing wrong with that as it relates to nuclear power. But I think the main issue is let's not be rambunctious. Let's take our time."
On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) agreed;
"I just don't think we ought to, in the wake of a crisis, be making long-term decisions" about America's energy policy.

Thus, while the worst may be yet to come in Japan and anti-nuclear activists are active across the world, some facts demonstrate the practical/political difficulty of even a medium term transition away from the use of nuclear power.

First, there are currently 442 nuclear power plants operating in 31 countries. These plants produce 376,313 megawatts of electricity. An additional 65 plants are in the planning or construction stage. In 19 countries, including the U.S., more than 20% of electric generation is from nuclear facilities. In France 80% of electricity comes from nuclear generation. In short, a massive dependency currently exists on nuclear power. World wide, these plants produce 14% of all electricity production in the those 31 nations.

Second, what are the realities of the dangers connected to nuclear industry?
The situation in Japan is enormously dangerous. A complete meltdown of one or more of the four reactors involved would eject large amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere and could require public evacuations on a scale not seen before. However, this is still a relatively unlikely worst case scenario.

The first commercial nuclear generation of electricity occurred in 1954 in Obinsk, Soviet Union. Since then the world's nuclear plants have a combined operating experience of over 14,000 years. (European Nuclear Society). Since 1954 there have been several incidents/accidents at nuclear plants around the world but only three, including the current crisis in Japan, are generally considered to be very serious: Three Mile Island in the U.S. (1979) in which no fatalities occurred; Chernobyl, Soviet Ukraine (1986) which caused over 50 immediate deaths and numerous long term deaths estimated in the thousands from radiation exposure after the reactor exploded and a radioactive plume traveled over much of eastern Europe. The causes of the explosion were determined to be a combination of operating errors and design flaws.

The Japanese crisis is in many ways unique. It is the direct result of a magnitude 9 earthquake just 80 miles off the coast. This was followed by a tsunami of enormous proportions. Still, to date no deaths have been directly attributed to the damage at the nuclear facility.

Thus, the basic question that is important for the future of nuclear power is: are the lessons learned and to be learned from this and previous crises adequate to protect against similar events in the future?
Soviet reactor design is not part of the modern industrialized world nuclear industry. Training and safety regulations have been significantly upgraded everywhere. Clearly, the construction of nuclear plants in areas of seismic activity require special designs and should probably be avoided entirely. In the Japanese case, the current problem is the lack of electricity to power the pumps necessary to provide water to cool both the reactors and the pools containing spent (partially radioactive) fuel rods. On site emergency generators would seem to be an obvious and easy to do, safety precaution.

Another important question for policy makers who might be tempted to follow the anti-nuclear activists calls to end nuclear electricity generation is: "How do you replace the generation currently produced and how quickly could it be done?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration , "renewables", biomass, geothermal, wind and solar sources, provide only 4% of current U.S. electricity production. Coal is the largest source of electricity production at 45% with natural gas second at 23%. Replacing the nuclear 20% of production would be a huge and long term project. The current impetus is to replace, over time, the use of coal because of the large scale emissions of carbon dioxide which is associated with it and which has been the focus of the global warming threat. To replace both coal and nuclear sources of electricity would mean replacing 65% of total generation facilities. The current favorites of anti-nuclear and environmental activists are solar and wind. Both of these sources require geographically huge arrays to contribute in any meaningful way to commercial power supplies. They also face the problem of reliability. Electric power suppliers must have a constant level of supply and reserve supply to accommodate average use and peak use, which varies by weather patterns. Wind and solar sources cause supply to vary because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

Transitions in any direction will be slow because of America’s abundant coal reserves. Barring technological breakthroughs which would make the burning of coal cleaner the common sense change would be to convert more production to natural gas which the U.S. also has in abundance. This source is hampered by distribution problems (pipe lines) which limit use in high power consumption areas of the northeast.. Nuclear generation, while expensive to construct, is inexpensive to operate and produces no atmospheric pollution. For nations lacking large supplies of fossil fuels i.e. natural gas and coal, and for whom the enormous land requirements and practical inefficiencies of solar and wind generation are impractical, like Japan, nuclear generation provides the best choice.

 Safety issues will always remain and logistic issues relating to disposal of nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel rods will have to be addressed. There is a role to play for wind and solar energy as supplements to the more abundant and reliable sources but the enormity of the nuclear investment world wide and the dependency that has been created by current use, make abandonment of nuclear sources of electricity impractical, if not impossible.


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