14 March 2011: The Japanese tsunami and nuclear power

The horrific current events in Japan – earthquake, tsunami, explosions at two (at the time of writing) nuclear power stations, evacuation of thousands living around those power stations – must make all those of us who favour nuclear power question our support. I have spent much of the weekend doing so, but still believe that nuclear power is a necessary, low-carbon bridge-technology, until the world can be 100% reliant on renewables.

Earthquakes, and the tsunamis they cause, are genuine ‘natural disasters’. They are nothing to do with climate change. Floods, droughts and wildfires are often called natural disasters, and they have always occurred – including before the industrial revolution (and therefore before any human-induced climate change) – and it is impossible to attribute any particular event directly to climate change. Therefore, the media’s persistence with ‘natural disasters’ for such events is understandable, if somewhat incomplete as a description. However, there will always be fully natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis.

Japan is in a highly seismically active area, where tectonic plates meet. Because it has no significant fossil fuel supplies, it has developed nuclear power extensively since the 1970s.  In 2008, nearly a quarter of its electricity came from nuclear power. Other countries in seismically active areas, including Chile, are now considering building nuclear power stations.

Nuclear power is not risk-free and not without environmental effects, even when it goes according to plan – notably radioactive waste. The world could and should aim to phase out nuclear power. However, the unavoidable question is whether it should be phased out before or after fossil fuels. Generating electricity from coal also produces radioactive waste, as Tom Blees records in his excellent book Prescription for the Planet. Given the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the fact that the world has a long way to go before reaching 100% renewables (only 3.5% of Japan’s total energy was from renewables in 2008), nuclear power is less bad than fossil fuels.

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  1. Frank Freeman

    I have to disagree; I don’t believe that building more nuclear power plants addresses the goal that “The world could and should aim to phase out nuclear power.”

    Nuclear power is so dangerous that it can’t be insured. In the U.S. legislation limits the liability of nuclear power plants, obviously another instance where the rewards are enjoyed by private corporations, but the risks are ‘externalized’ to the public, like you and me. Let ‘free enterprise’ dictate that these risks be borne by the profiteers; they must be required to buy liability insurance on the ‘open market’ to cover any damages that they may cause.

  2. Surely the question should be two fold – and you haven’t answered either of them.

    First, are nukes safe enough to support. This is not an easy thing to answer – how do you balance something that is safe 99.9999% of the time but that if it goes wrong has devastating consequences, with something that has far more accidents, but each accident has more limited impacts (like car crashes for example).

    And anyway, can we trust what we are told about the safety? I am a bit fed up of hearing how power stations are fail safe – at least until they fail. Then it is because of an earthquake/tsunami – which previously the industry said the stations could withstand.

    We might not havce earthquakes here, but I have heard nuclear scientists saying they stations could withstand terrorist attacks – do we have to wait for one to happen to see if that is true?

    Also not inspiting confidence is the fact that after the accident, we have to listen to comments like “the reactors are safe, it is diesel generators that failed.” I’m sorry, but would I get away with it if I crashed my car and said “My car proved to be safe, ehe engine was not breached. But the brakes were not working”

    So safety questions are difficult, and certainly not easy ro brush aside. So do we need them? It seems to me that most models show we can meet carbon targets without them if we ensure we really go for energy saving and renewables, plus some minor continued use of fossil fuels.

    If question 1 showed that nukes were clearly safe, perhaps we would conclude that despite the fact we can manage without them, it is a bit easier to build a few. But if Q1 is a bit tricky, and Q2 fairly clear – why are we bothering with them?

  3. Alessandro DE MAIDA

    Why don’t rather invest in molten salt reactors (MSR) nuclear technology, particurally in the thorium breeder version? It seems the Chinese (and Japanese) are founding a such very ambitious program

    With these reactors, those volatile fission products (particurally dangerous in case of radioactivity fall-out like iodine 131) are continuosly extracted from the reactor during operation and safely stored outside it and in case of serious accident, the liquid fuel (always at one atm at high temps ~ 700 °C and solid at room temp – so any spill quickly solidifies and eventually plug the rupture – totally non reactive with air or water) core can be easily emptied for simple gravity by freeze plugs at the bottom of the reactor and safely stored in dump tanks where criticality is physically impossible

    Moreover, being high temp thermal stations are ~ 50% electric efficient even with today conversion technology, so don’ t need any water cooling (only dry towers), easing site locations and/or use them to produce low temp heat for seawater desalination or district heating

    Finally, particurally in the thorium breeding configuration (i.e. using slow neutrons and not fast neutrons plutonium technology), it relies on pratically infinite on human scale thorium reserves as nuclear fuel, produces negligible amount of long life wastes (like plutonium or other actinides) and doesn’ t pose the same proliferation risks as low enriched uranium and/or plutonium technologies

  4. We must expand nuclear or atomic power. What happened in Japan if anything shows how the nuclear industry got it right-they did the evacuations, followed by proper emergency procedures. No, they weren’t perfect. But almost all the people killed in the Japanese earthquake were killed by debris, tsunamis, etc.

    The same risks are found with hydroelectric dams. If a hydroelectric dam is destroyed in an earthquake, massive flooding can happen- people can drown, be killed by electrocutions, epidemics can spread from dirty H2O. Also people can be killed by the floods coming into contact with dangerous chemicals.

    Windmills and solar panels, while marketed as ‘green’, really are not so environmentally friendly. You need more land, use more materials, generate less energy as both the wind and sun are intermittent. Windmills have killed endangered birds and bats. People who live near windmills have reported higher incidence of hearing loss, migraines, nausea, etc. Solar panels contain dangerous chemicals some of which are carcinogenic. Yes, we must also use windmills and solar panels when possible, but let’s dispel the idea that windmills and solar panels are ‘green’ because they’re not.

    We must use geothermal when possible. Getting back to nuclear, the newer nuclear power plants run on less uranium which lasts longer and generates less waste. Eventually they’ll perfect a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Thorium is better than uranium. They will also come up with better reactors in the future, underwater reactors such as Flexblue along with underground reactors will be there.

    What happened in Japan has gotten the nuclear industry bad attention – most of it unjustified. The earthquake has forced nations to reevaluate their nuclear powerplants. The nuclear industry will come up with better reactors. But whether people like this or not, nuclear energy is not going away. We must be prudent with nuclear, as with any other industry, but nuclear power when done right does benefit the environment. BP did not go away after the 2010 spill. BP was negligent. It was condemned, got congressional hearings. BP’s business was hurt for a time, but BP is still in business. Nuclear isn’t going away.

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