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Fukushima – Reason to Abandon Nuclear Power?

March 21, 2011


Before entering into any political discussion relative to the events following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I must first express my sympathies with and support for the people of Japan. What a horrific series of events they have endured and continue to face. “Tragedy” doesn’t begin to approach the magnitude of the impact on the nation of Japan and its people. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.

As I write this, the efforts to cool the Fukushima nuclear plants are still ongoing. The scale of the event is approaching that of the Three Mile Island accident, but at this stage is still well short of the Chernobyl disaster – and it is unlikely to ever progress to that level. There is hope that power will soon be restored and cooling will be enabled – which will be the first step to resolving the situation.

The problems with the Fukushima Nuclear Facility have re-ignited the debate and re-invigorated the Anti-Nuke crowd who now point to this incident as reason to abandon nuclear power.

It seems to me that this puts the Anti-Nuke, Anti-Fossil Fuel Enviro-nuts on the horns of a dilemma. If we can’t meet our energy needs with nuclear, and we can’t burn fossil fuels, how will they plug in their Chevy Volt? Windmills and solar panels blanketing our landscape couldn’t BEGIN to meet our energy demands!

To their argument that the Fukushima incident exemplifies an inherent flaw or failure of Nuclear Power, the clear answer is, “NONSENSE!”

Let us examine a few facts: There are many hundreds of nuclear power generation plants operating around the world. Sixteen countries depend on nuclear power for at least a quarter of their electricity. France gets around three quarters of its power from nuclear energy, while Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia and Ukraine get one third or more.

Japan’s 55 plants produce one third of the electrical power for that nation. Nuclear power generation has been around for over 40 years. In all that time and with all those plants operating, there have been so few incidents that the 2 big ones, 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl, are seared into our memory, and the more minor incidents are all but forgotten.

Most of these incidents involved short-lived releases of small amounts of radioactive contamination. But even the more serious events were hardly catastrophic… Who remembers October 5, 1966 when the core of an experimental reactor near Detroit, MI experienced a partial meltdown when its cooling system failed?

Hundreds of nuclear plants have operated for decades without incident, and the last significant incident before the Fukushima event was in 1999 when workers at a Japanese plant mixing uranium with nitric acid to make nuclear fuel used too much uranium and accidentally set off an uncontrolled reaction. A number of plant workers were exposed to radiation, and local residents were ordered to stay indoors for a time. Not exactly a world-shaking event.

The point being that nuclear accidents are rare, and usually overblown. Even the 3-Mile Island incident has had few lasting effects.

Still, the radioactive material involved in nuclear power generation is indeed quite dangerous. Therefore, significant safeguards must be in place. The fact of the matter is… they ARE!

Let’s look at the Japanese situation. First, they experienced a 9.0 earthquake and hundreds of 5+ pre and aftershocks. All 55 Japanese reactors withstood this level of seismic activity. The Richter scale is logarithmic, where each whole number is 10 times the intensity of the previous number. Southern California has rarely experienced a quake above magnitude 7. Yet the Japanese quake was 100 times more powerful, and ALL their nuke plants withstood it! Fukushima was a unique situation unlikely to ever be replicated anywhere else in the world. A nuke plant built on the San Andreas fault would never have experienced the intensity of quake that all 55 reactors in Japan successfully endured.

The earthquake triggered the procedures to shut down the reactor. This occurred as designed. The chain-reaction was stopped. The quake took out the local electrical power grid. The backup generators kicked in as designed. These backup generators had redundant backup generators behind them. And behind them, there were batteries. These redundant systems would keep the cooling system operational until normal electrical power could be restored. Except… the tsunami struck.

The tsunami took out the generators. All of them. It also insured that electrical power from the grid wasn’t coming back anytime soon. When the batteries had been expended, cooling was lost and the problems began. Fukushima is a unique situation. A “perfect storm” of cataclysm converged on this plant – one unlikely to ever be replicated anywhere else on the planet!

There is virtual certainty that the Fukushima situation will not progress out of control to anything approaching the Chernobyl disaster. Yes, some radiation was released and this is a significant mishap. But the reaction to this event is overblown. In the immediate vicinity of the plant, during the period of time until the radiation is contained, there is certainly a danger. But the panic in the USA and the run on potassium iodide is mere hysteria. The effect on the USA will be little more than going thru the TSA’s naked scanner a time or two!

Once power is available to re-enable cooling, the situation will be brought under control in short order thereafter. The Fukushima plant may well be damaged beyond the point of ever bringing it back online to produce electricity… but the “fallout” from the incident will likely be of far more impact politically than physically.

Copyright ©2011 Doug Edelman

 


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