What does the Japanese quake crisis say about nuclear power?

I write this with the Japanese TV broadcaster NHK on live in the background, bringing rolling news of the steadily intensifying crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants. Violent explosions have torn apart two out of four containment buildings, whilst reactor no. 3 is reported to have lost its coolant. In an ongoing situation, which could yet get much worse, it is clearly premature to draw conclusions about the lessons of the crisis for the needed global nuclear renaissance – but there is no doubt that what we have already seen represents an extremely dangerous situation with serious global implications.

Collapsed containment building at Fukushima nuclear plant

Here is what we know so far: although the Fukushima plant did automatically shut down after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck – and was miraculously undamaged, testifying to the engineering standards of its 40-year-old design – it did lose external power. Then disaster struck, when the tsunami overwhelmed the backup power systems which are dependent on diesel generators. Without power, the coolant systems began to fail, and the reactor core began to heat up: even with the control rods fully inserted, fission products within the core will continue to generate significant heat.

This combination led to two (so far) hydrogen explosions, probably as a result of hydrogen vented from within the primary containment vessel (which surrounds the reactor core) accumulating at the top of the buildings which house the reactors. Even with these explosions, so far very little radioactivity has been released. Seawater mixed with boric acid is being injected into all the affected reactors to try to keep them cool and avoid a meltdown scenario which could lead to a further uncontrolled chain reaction and a significant release of radiation to the environment.

This crisis could certainly get much worse. Even the best-case scenario would need to see emergency-style cooling maintained for weeks, and the permanent scrapping of the entire nuclear plant if the fuel rods have been deformed by excess heat. Moreover, it is very difficult to imagine a scenario however whereby no significant damage is done in the public mind to the image of nuclear power – just at the time when the need for large-scale carbon-free power sources was beginning to turn around support for the nuclear industry.

This may not be entirely fair. The majority of the world’s nuclear plants are not situated in seismic areas which present a threat along the scale of that faced by earthquake-prone Japan. Those which may be affected by tsunamis are likely even fewer in number. Moreover, the Fukushima plant is 40 years old and was due to be mothballed in February – it was given an extended license, just as has happened in the UK, Germany and many other countries – because no-one could agree on newer, safer designs at the same time as power shortages loomed.

Still, any critical situation affecting a nuclear plant will always loom large in the public mind. The contained partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 killed no-one, and yet led to an anti-nuclear hysteria from which the industry has yet to recover. The vastly worse disaster at Chernobyl – where a steam explosion destroyed the core of the reactor itself, scattering radioactive elements over wide areas – had more significant and tragic impacts, but even so they are routinely exaggerated. As recently as two weeks ago, the latest UNSCEAR report about Chernobyl concludes that the current death toll is unlikely to be above 50.

Already the knives are out for nuclear power. Germans are massing in their thousands for anti-nuclear demonstrations. My twitter feed is full of tweets by green campaigners concluding that this means the final nail in the nuclear coffin. They could be right. If so, the outcome they hope for would in my view represent a colossal setback for humanity’s efforts to successfully tackle global warming. Without the large-scale carbon-free option of nuclear generation, there is much less chance that industrialised and industrialising societies alike will be able to keep the lights on without significant and increasing use of coal.

This is as much true in Japan, as in China, India, the US and elsewhere. Japan is a very densely populated island with a small, mountainous area and high values placed on natural space. It will never be significantly powered with onshore wind, and solar will also never be able to significantly contribute to the grid in this relatively northern nation. Greater use of geothermal, making a benefit of its location on the Pacific ‘ring of fire’ might help, but it is extremely difficult to envisage a carbon-free future for a non-nuclear Japan. With the country already backing out of its Kyoto commitments, this is the last thing the climate needs.

Perhaps in the fullness of time a rational assessment will conclude that the current crisis is no more an argument against nuclear power than the devastating tsunami is an argument against building towns on the coast. Some level of risk will always need to be tolerated, even as we do everything we can to minimise it. But for the moment we can only hope. First, that a significant meltdown is avoided, and that there is no major release of radiation. And second, that lessons can be learned which can both be retrospectively applied to old nuclear plants and which may even further improve the engineering safety designs of third and fourth-generation nuclear power.

We need nuclear power. If what happens at Fukushima dims the prospects for increasing the world’s use of it, then the battle against climate change will be infinitely more difficult to win. Only time will tell how this crisis will play out. For the moment we can do little more than hope.

20 comments

  1. You’ll like this, which says much the same thing:

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2011/03/14/hugh-pennington/fallout-from-fukushima/

    Nuclear rollout on a big scale was always a false hope, in my view, for various reasons. Public fear is one of them. It’s not entirely irrational, though doubtless is often exaggerated. But any technology whose waste needs to be stored deep underground for thousands of years is inherently frightening. It’s worth considering where that fear comes from, rather than dismissing it as ‘irrational.’ Of course it is irrational, but so are all human emotions, so that response doesn’t get us very far.

    I suspect the fear comes from the same place as the fear of GMOs – here is something very complex, controlled by a distant elite whose motives we don’t really know, whose potential fallout we can’t predict or even understand. In that sense, it’s a perfectly sensible fear, which probably fulfills a useful purpose.

    Interestingly, this is not a fear of technology, but of a certain type of technology. I’m interested in why the internet, for example, does not generate the same kind of fear despite being another world-changing radical technology. Possibly the reason is that people feel they control it – or, maybe more accurately, that it is not centrally controlled by an elite, or attached to the same kind of social/ecological control agenda. In reality, none of us understands how the web works, but it’s not associated in the public mind with 1950s-style high modernist scientism. No ‘Frankenfears’ here, even though in the long term the web may turn out to change the world much more deeply than biotech ever will.

    Just thinking on the hoof…

  2. Robin Smith says:

    Good piece. You forgot to mention the proximate cause that could make this a case of stealing final defeat from the jaws of final victory.

    Health and safety planning.

    Tsunami can be stopped by a defence wall around the site. Its not that expensive.

    Planners knew this would have protected the generators.

  3. freewillie says:

    I’m afraid nuclear is unsellable to many people. You can go on & on about scientific research & statistical evidence of this & that. But in most people’s minds they see this as an inherently unsafe source of energy. Why?

    Its very simple.
    a) Why does the waste have to be buried so deep?
    b) One Chernobyl is one too many.
    c) Why are the power stations not located closer to cities?

    All sorts of clever arguments are mustered by the chattering classes to counter this view of the common man/woman. This view is portrayed as an oversimplification of a complex issue ie the “trust me I’m a scientist & you’re not” argument. Just like so many “experts” down through the years on a wide variety of proposals.

    Sometimes you have to trust your own judgement.

    • I agree – this gets to the heart of the matter.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @freewillie:

      You have asked some good and valuable questions. Please accept my responses as coming from someone who is prone to independent thinking (few of my colleagues will admit to agreeing with me) but who has been studying nuclear energy professionally for more than 30 years.

      I will repeat your questions and provide my response.
      1- Why does the waste have to be buried so deep? It doesn’t. We have been keeping it on the surface of the earth in simple containers (pools and concrete casks) for decades. It is well behaved, corrosion resistant, solid material that requires very high temperatures to make it change phase. It also contains about 95% of the initial potential energy. It should be treated as a resource and recycled, not treated as a waste and viewed with fear and misunderstanding.

      2. One Chernobyl is one too many. Though I agree, how do you feel about accidents like the natural gas explosion at the Kleene Energy plant in Middletown, CT that killed six workers, the methane and coal dust explosion at Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners, the Deepwater Horizon natural gas explosion that killed 11 oil workers and contaminated a significant portion of the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline, and the San Bruno natural gas pipeline explosion that killed 7 people who were in their homes. Every one of those happened just last year in the United States. I am sure there were a number of others on that list of energy related deaths.
      3. Why are the power stations not located closer to cities? I don’t really know. I used to go to sea and spend months at a time within 200 feet of an operating nuclear power plant. I even operated that plant in two different downtown areas while visiting the ports. There was once a proposal to locate a nuclear plant in New York City, but the oil/natural gas/coal lobby worked hard to convince people they should fear that facility.

      Rod Adams
      Publisher, Atomic Insights

  4. Robin says:

    Interesting article in response to the media hype surrounding nuclear meltdown etc.

    http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

  5. Bella Brown says:

    I am not a socialist, but a rather different scientific view of the true level of sicknesses and deaths resulting from Chernobyl is reproduced on the Socialism Today site: http://www.socialismtoday.org/100/Chernobyl.html
    There seems to have been some massaging of figures in the ‘official’ UN reports. Certainly, those medics who have worked on the ground in the Ukraine since Chernobyl give a far from reassuring picture, citing huge escalations in birth defects and cancers (esp childhood cancers, a sure indication of environmental toxic exposure) that have overwhelmed medical services. You have to look at epidemiological studies of disease incidence over a couple of decades following a nuke accident, not just the immediate deaths from acute radiation poisoning, as the report that Lynas cites prefers to quote.
    Please also note that the report that Lynas cites relies on the usual industry old chestnut of ‘no proof that a certain factor caused this effect’: “The report also says that it is not possible to state scientifically that radiation caused a particular cancer in an individual.” Well, this is common to ALL epidemiological studies, which can only show an association, not a definite cause and effect relationship. The tobacco industry relied on this kind of obfuscation for decades. Don’t be fooled, folks, radiation is dangerous and there are plenty of researchers in the Ukraine and Russia who will say so, unequivocally, based on their study of Chernobyl’s effects.

  6. Bella Brown says:

    The anti-”hype” blog url posted earlier
    http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/
    rings alarm bells, as ever when you see the concepts “scientific experts”, “dangerous technology” and “reassurance” all together in one place. There is pressure little reassurance from this expert quoted by the Wall Street Journal, a news outlet whose focus on money may perhaps give it a tad more realism than reassurance:

    “… the perception issues could hurt officials as they try to keep the public calm, especially given the perception in Japan that regulators downplay problems. ‘The Japanese government is saying that the containment’s OK, but that belies belief when you see the violence of the explosion,’ said John Large, a nuclear consultant. He added, ‘Understandably, they do not want to panic their population.’”
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703363904576200533746195522.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

  7. Rod Adams says:

    @Mark – it is useful to recognize that there will always be knives out for competitors in a business where market share means as much as it does in the energy business.

    Every single large reactor whose commissioning date gets delayed puts an additional $365 million into the pocket of the natural gas industry – minimum. If gas prices skyrocket in a couple of years – like they did during the last period when “everyone” agreed that natural gas prices were going to be low for a long time – the value of nuclear plants that are not competing in the power market will go even higher.

    Almost every time I bring this up, I get dismissed as a “conspiracy theorist”. I hope, however, that at least some people will understand the difference between describing a business strategy focused on protecting markets and market share and describing a shady complex conspiracy. It should be no secret to anyone who has ever competed in a commodity market that existing suppliers work hard to keep new suppliers out, that they are trained to “raise barriers to entry”, and that they love to keep the balance between supply and demand tight enough to enjoy what Warren Buffett calls “pricing power”, which means the power to raise the price and not have the customer decide to go to a competitor.

    The coal, oil and gas industry recognize the Rahm Emmanuel mantra of “never let a good crisis go to waste” and they are working the phones like crazy to keep the world focused on nuclear plant issues that will not hurt a single member of the general public. They are doing that to distract us from the fact that LNG terminals, refineries and gas pipelines are burning and dumping toxic materials into the environment without any containment to stop them.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  8. Jim Thomas says:

    Hey Mark,

    Yes of course this rends asunder industry’s carefully constructed attempt at a ‘nuclear renaissance’ but to draw the lessons as being just about nuclear power and the carbon-intensity of the future energy mix is way too narrow. What this ongoing crisis should prompt is some reflection on the inherent vulnerability of resting essential areas of security (whether its energy security, climate security, food security or whatever) on complex, high-risk, hard-to-control technological infrastructure – its a very bad gamble.

    This weeks tsunami is a classic ‘Black Swan’ of the type that Nassim Taleb warns (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_swan_theory) – an unexpected event with massive impact that in hindsight should have been hedged against but wasn’t – like letting commercial airplanes be commandeered as suicide bombs or allowing financiers to repackage toxic debts as new commodities. Taleb has repeatedly pointed out that black swans, which by definition can’t be foreseen or will be dismissed as outliers by policymakers, are most likely to crop up where you have chaotic or complex systems, new or only partially understood technologies or systems requiring extensive control and management mechanisms. This week it happens to be that a combination of ocean and geological systems with nuclear energy production infrastructure has conspired to give us a black swan event. Tomorrow however it may be a biotech microbe and the financial system or a geoengineering technology and the food distribution system or whatever.

    Anyway what i’m getting at is that its events like this that should remind we are not ‘The God Species’ after all at least not in the sense of Stewart Brands “we are as gods and may as well get used to it” – our technologies may feel godlike to us but any illusion of control over them is just that – illusory. We are as far from Gods as possible- not wise, not all knowing, not all powerful. We are more like overconfident hubristic adolescents drunk at the wheel of progress , ahistorically delusional about our own state of knowledge and sense of our own control. Handing a species in that state of delusion more nuclear power, or barely invented planetary management tools such as geoengineering is like handing volatile poorly built weaponry to a coked-up crowd of angry teenagers. What idiot would advise that?

  9. That’s a good point Jim – though actually I would say that the Japan nuke crisis is not a black swan at all, but a black elephant! See here for definition:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/30711287/Dougald-Hine-Black-Elephants-and-Skull-Jackets-A-Conversation-with-Vinay-Gupta

    Arguments about how many people nuclear power has killed/injured compared to, say, coal, are interesting, but I think they also miss part of the point. Nuclear power is incredibly complex and inherently frightening – splitting the atom is almost an archetypal risk. Coal burning is less fearful, and so is, say wind power.

    The other worry with nuclear, which is becoming clear in Japan, is the likelihood of cover-ups when accidents happen. Nobody trusts the authorities to be honest about the real impacts, and rightly so, because they are very rarely open about it.

    My wider view on all this is that the issue of the tech is almost irrelevant, because the problem is the paradigm, not the technology. This was, after all, the original driver behind the green movement. If you are pursuing a progress-and-growth paradigm, a kind of ‘supply side environmentalism’ if you like, then you are limited in your discussions to a simply argument about which form of big, centralised tech you need to power your society. Whichever you choose, it will lead to a lot of destruction, because the paradigm is the destroyer, not the technology. That applies to nukes, coal, big wind and big solar. If you don’t change the model and the assumptions behind the model, then you don’t solve the big problem. We need to keep having this discussion.

  10. Andy Brewin says:

    Mark,

    No matter what you believe about the perceived need for Nuclear Power, there is an irrefutable fact about highly complex, man made systems. No matter what any expert might say to justify them; they do sometimes go wrong, and when they do……….! If the experts stated that they would never go wrong (as they have done over the last few decades with Nuclear Energy), where does that leave our faith in experts when people like yourself assert that we actually need more of this stuff not less?

    As we edge further and further into declining fossil fuel supply, and with that our ability to manage highly centralised control of anything, do you not think it just might be sensible to avoid highly complex and potentially uncontrollable technologies that have proved troublesome already………………….?

    I struggle to see why your type of ‘big Green’ thinking is likely to be any better than ‘big Carbon’ thinking. It may agruably be even worse when you have removed the ability to ‘command control’ society because of the extraordinary energy density of fossil fuels.

    Applying the same logic as got us into the problems looks like no solution at all. No matter how you look at it, or what technology you use, big ‘solutions’ usually lead to big problems.

    I’m not anti science, I just down share the same ‘blind faith’ that you seem to, seemingly no matter what evidence to the contrary is put in front of you.

    Andy

  11. Marc Gunther says:

    Thanks for offering this perspective. It’s easy for people to overreact to the Japan crisis in the heat of the moment, although the situation does appear to be deteriorating.

    The key point, as you write, is this:

    Some level of risk will always need to be tolerated, even as we do everything we can to minimise it.

    Coal pollution kills. I believe a hydro dam collapsed in China some years ago and killed many thousands. And as you know better than most, climate instability may be the biggest risk of all.

  12. Bella Brown says:

    The “reassuring” statement of the Herr Professor, “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors”, has now strangely been removed (was at
    http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/ )
    His premature reassurance rings a bit hollow now, doesn’t it? Fire is now raging in one reactor, explosions were heard at another this morning, and the Japanese authorities telling people there is a serious risk to health. What I do not understand is how “reassuring” people about nukes can ever be seen as more important than finding out the truth about them. Unless of course you are paid by the industry to reassure.

  13. Bella Brown says:

    @ Marc Gunther–Some level of risk must be accepted? how many people have renewable energy plants killed (whoops, watch out for that windmill blade)? how many birth defects and cancers have they caused? it seems illogical to claim that we have to accept the dangers of nukes–not to mention the huge amounts of power used to build and maintain them, plus trying to deal with the waste that will remain dangerous for centuries, just to supply people with energy.

  14. Elisa Trimble says:

    The truth about Chernobyl

    Chernobyl clean-up expert slams Japan, IAEA
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/15/us-japan-nuclear-chernobyl-idUSTRE72E5MV20110315

    (Reuters) – Greed in the nuclear industry and corporate influence over the U.N. watchdog for atomic energy may doom Japan to a spreading nuclear disaster, one of the men brought in to clean up Chernobyl said on Tuesday.

    Slamming the Japanese response at Fukushima, Russian nuclear accident specialist Iouli Andreev accused corporations and the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of willfully ignoring lessons from the world’s worst nuclear accident 25 years ago to protect the industry’s expansion.

    “After Chernobyl all the force of the nuclear industry was directed to hide this event, for not creating damage to their reputation. The Chernobyl experience was not studied properly because who has money for studying? Only industry.

    “But industry doesn’t like it,” he said in an interview…
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/15/us-japan-nuclear-chernobyl-idUSTRE72E5MV20110315

  15. Paul says:

    Great article. What we need is a defined and rational answer to our future energy needs which means more nuclear and coal (not sequestrated as it will never work) and the banning of further projects which use wind and solar.

  16. Paul says:

    Oh and I should add that the elephant in the room in terms of this issue is Man’s contribution to climate change which amounts to a very, very small part. Discount this myth and what was once opaque and clouded by those of a more nervous disposition and prone to think the worst of Mankind and at a stroke sensible energy policies might be born.
    It’s a shame but having to listen to the constant hysteria from what is essentially a position of moral puritanism and medieval christian beliefs that God will punish those who take pleasure in turning on the light switch and driving a car the lives of ordinary folk remains blighted by these people.
    Caroline Lucas, Chris Huhne, Al Gore, David Cameron, notable amongst the pack whose sole intent is to destroy a system which has served us well will be remembered as some of the guilty when this utter scam is revealed for what it is.
    All the suckers who engage with Mr. Lynas should examine their political beliefs and outlook on the world and essentially grow up and develop some balls.

  17. Three Mile Island was never as bad as some in the media tried to make it (not even close to Japan’s situation). Should know as my home town and family are approximately 19 miles from the plant.

Post a comment