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Summary:

It’s still not clear how big a disaster Japan’s nuclear problem is yet, but what is clear is it will have far reaching effects on policy and public relations around nuclear power. It’s been front and center in global media and policy debates this weekend.

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There’s a lot that will be gleaned over the coming weeks and months from Japan’s nuclear “disaster.” It’s a pretty big nuclear fail, on par with Three Mile Island (U.S., 1979), though at this point not yet a Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986). It’s been at the front and center of global media and policy debates this weekend, and it’s an ongoing situation.

The latest is that Japanese authorities have reportedly said there’s a significant chance the fuel rods have partially melted at two of the reactors, and they are still fighting a full-blown meltdown (Scientific American has a detailed look at just what went wrong after the earthquake and tsunami). The operator of the reactors, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), resorted to pumping seawater into the reactors, which to many in the industry sounds very much like a last-ditch, worrisome effort. Reuters reported 140,000 people have been evacuated from the area as a safety precaution, and iodine is being readied to distributed to people in the area to protect them from radioactive exposure. We’ll soon see if the disaster will get worse or better.

What we do know is that the incident could have far-reaching repercussions on the nuclear policies of the governments of the U.S., European countries, China and India, and will likely do significant damage to public opinion in general of nuclear energy. As the Guardian put it succinctly: “When experts decide it is necessary to flood reactors in the world’s most technologically advanced nation with an improvised flow of marine muck, people will ask whether the industry’s contingency planning for disaster is really as good as we are always being promised.”

Already, anti-nuclear groups are already using the incident to point to the dangers — or at least unknowns — of nuclear. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman has called for a moratorium on new nuclear power until lessons are learned from Japan. The Washington Post reported this weekend that the disaster could be a set back for U.S. nuclear policy, though acknowledged it’s still too early to tell what the effect will be, given the situation in Japan could change in the coming hours and days.

Over the past two years, President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have been amassing one of the most aggressive government plans to support nuclear power in the U.S. in decades. Last year, the DOE announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to Southern Company to build two nuclear plants in Burke County, Ga., which will be the first nuclear plants in the U.S. in almost three decades. At one point, Obama had a plan to dole out $54.5 billion in loan guarantees to build nuclear power in the U.S. (Incidentally, Tokyo Electric Power Co. has also planned to invest $125 million into expanding a Texas nuclear project.)

Europe is already starting to face a public backlash, and policy discussions, too. U.K Energy Secretary Chris Huhne publicly asked British officials and the public not to panic about the British nuclear strategy, and pointed out England’s lack of earthquakes. Germans, many of which already oppose nuclear power, saw protests this weekend around a nuclear plant there, with around 40,000 people turning out. France is battling criticism from its own anti-nuclear groups, given the country generates some 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear.

Both China and India are reviewing their nuclear plans, reports Bloomberg. India has planned to spend $175 billion by 2030 on nuclear power, and China has planned to add 27 reactors in five years, according to the report.

Don’t expect the fear over Japan’s nuclear disaster to go away anytime soon. It’s taken decades for Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to fade in people’s memories.

Beyond the public relations nightmare of the dangers associated with nuclear, costs are as much of a concern. Not just to build the plants, but also to deal with any nuclear problems. According to the World Nuclear Association, the cleanup of the damaged nuclear reactor system at Three Mile Island took nearly 12 years and cost approximately $973 million.

Image courtesy of rowens27.

  1. Classic example of the usual media driven xenophobic reaction surrounding anything Nuclear (all in the name of fanning hysteria to drive ratings) Get a grip, what’s the media’s solution, do a head count of how many ignorants turn out to anti nuclear Vs anti coal protests and base future energy policy on that?? lol NOTHING WOULD EVER GET DONE. The ‘people’ don’t know anything bar what is published by drama queen media types looking to sell ad space… The guys who design and run these facilities actually KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING! It’s those who don’t know anything who run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

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    1. Thank you Paul for your frank comment on the hysteria. As a 32+ year veteran of nuclear plant safety analysis work (now retired), I find it incredible that people are so quick to speculate on something they know so little about….commercial nuclear power technology and safety design margins.

      Heaven help us….with idiots like Lieberman wanting to be the first to ‘speculate’….gotta get his name in the headlines somehow.
      Ridiculous !
      Paul from Washington

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    2. Thanks for rationality Paul.

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    3. Thank you! At least someone with some reasonable sense…if this isn’t skewed towards anti-nuclear and towards causing mass chaos then I don’t know what is! Media companies like these serve absolutely NO purpose!

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    4. If they knew what they were doing, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. They wouldn’t be resorting to desperate measures like pumping the containment area with sea-water. Your arrogance is the kind which creates this sort of disaster in the first place– all ambition and attitude, no plan, no solutions. What’s the solution to the problem in Japan? Sounds like you’ve got the answers, let us in on the secrets.

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      1. James,

        There is another view. I suspect the disaster management people in Japan are smart, just as those in the US are smart. Enhancements to reactor safety were recommended after TMI and 9/11 here. Some were accepted and some were rejected. I suppose the decision could be viewed as political.

        It is likely the disaster management people recommended a gravity Emergency Core Cooling System and radiation filters to make it safer to release steam in Japan just as they made those recommendations here. It is apparent those recommendations were not completely followed in Japan.

        Engineering and disaster management are practices that improve with time and experiences. Bridges, buildings, and dams are safer for applying lessons learned. The best practices and lessons may, or may not, have been applied in Japan.

        Ultimately, every tool of women and men that handles large amounts of concentrated power has a cost in human life. The costs of hydro or coal are well known and “accepted” – maybe we need stand back, pray for the people of Japan, and evaluate the costs of nuclear power and the necessary disaster management before we abandon all hope.

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      2. I wonder if your response would be as it is, Stu, if you were living, or even typing, in Japan right now.

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    5. Gee, Pual, is that the best you can do? You forgot pinko commmie, dirty friggin’ hippie, treehugger, lily-livered, ….

      As for “The guys who design and run these facilities actually KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING!”, I’ve got to wonder about that.

      Do they know enough to not locate a reactor on top of a fault (Humboldt Bay), to build one right (Rancho Seco), to not crawl around the innards with a lit candle (Browns Ferry), to take appropriate action when equipment fails (Three Mile Island), or to keep the security guards from sleeping on the job (Peach Bottom)?

      Do they know what they are doing when they build plants to withstand 7.5 quakes/tsunamis in an area that can produce 8.9 quakes?

      Do they know enough to prevent the next reactor problem which will crop up? You know, the unknown unknowns….

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    6. Paul, enough time has passed to allow the industry to get out its official statement.

      http://theenergycollective.com/rodadams/53484/information-sheet-regarding-tohoku-earthquake-federation-electric-power-companies-jap

      Buried in their release is the follow bit…

      “These facilities were designed to withstand tsunamis within a range of assumed strength. In this event, however, the force of the tsunami exceeded the assumed range…. ”

      Get it? We built these things based on faulty assumptions.

      Sorry.

      Doesn’t that leave one wondering if there aren’t more faulty assumptions just waiting to bite us in the butt?

      Why take a chance on a potentially dangerous solution when we can get the job done with existing technology? Especially when the non-nuclear alternative is not only safer but also cheaper and faster?

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    7. Actually, this article is not that biased. You don’t have to look very hard to find the really biases articles. Also, I don’t understand your use of the term “xenophobic”. Perhaps you meant “nuclear-phobic” or some such?
      The article itself is a cut and paste job pretending to be journalism. The term “nuclear fail” instead of “nuclear failure” should tip you off that the writer is more comfortable with language appropriate to blog postings, not journalistic articles.
      BTW, the valid point against nuclear energy is the same one that can be made against current forms of ethanol production: the energy expended to support the industry is only marginally less than the energy produced. For both, you are looking at about 1:1.1 in terms of net gain. That is to say, if you were to just burn the fossil fuels used to obtain, process, produce, support, and clean up nuclear energy production, you would produce nearly as much energy, and you wouldn’t be left with the waste products to deal with. BTW, the carbon footprint is about a push with fossil fuels when you look at the accounting this way as well.

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  2. The public will have a problem with this because it has been spun in the worst sensational way. In the end this will be very similar to Three mile Island, except that reactor was advanced compared to the ones that just melted down in Japan. These were built in the very early 1970’s, they were designed in the 60’s and were nearing the end of their lives. The correct lesson here is that even these dinosaurs were able to ride out an earth quake that was an RS 9. This was one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history, all the reactors actually rode out the earthquake and the RS 7 aftershocks. If the backup generators were not destroyed by the tsunami, we would be talking about how unbelievably robust these reactors were, if we were talking about it at all. The problem is that people placed all the backup generators at ground levels. Modern reactors, built with the advantage of modern engineering and decades of practical working experience, are thousands of times more resilient than these 40 year old models. The public response to Three Mile Island has allowed coal fired plants to pump billions of tons of pollutants onto the planet, they are the single largest source of Mercury and other heavy metal pollution, acid rain and carbon dioxide. The also emit more radiation than nuclear plants due to high levels of Uranium and Thorium in coal. It is important to note here that the largest concern with the ash flow from the retention pond that burst in Tennessee two years ago was that it was all classified as radioactive waste. No one died at three mile island, 11 people died on the deep water horizon and according to the Bush administration’s EPA, 12,000 Americans parish each year due to micro-particulates produced by coal fired plants. No one has ever died due to nuclear accidents other than Chernobyl, let alone due to their normal operation.

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  3. I think the Government let the people of Japan down in the nuclear disaster planning area. Emergency Core Cooling is a reasonably well understood area – at least to the point of knowing how much heat will be generated over what time period. Disaster planning folks generally know that everything to manage the disaster must be included in the planning (electricity, for example).
    Gravity supplied Emergency Core Cooling requires venting the reactor down th the pressure of the gravity supplied water – and making an early decision on the use of boron (in minutes, not days).

    Had the disaster planning people planed for a flood following the earthquake (not unexpected, just bigger than normal), they might have had at least one generator where it stayed dry, controls in a waterproof area, and a gravity fed supply of emergency water and boron where it could have been fed to a vented reactor (filter the gas going out).

    Accepting a low level of release would have precluded the explosion by keeping the pressures lower.

    All this stuff was made public after 3 mile island. Seeing three more reactors placed in the position points to bad planning and political forces injected to moderate cost.

    This isn’t really a nuclear issue – Governments plan badly on the disposal of coal waste, the building of hydro dams and everything associated with the management of large amounts of energy.

    We need to work on improving disaster planning methodology (Katrina) and raising the budget clout of disaster planners and managers so they can implement the tools they recommend or at least publish a report suggesting the disasters they accept with the systems implemented.

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  4. Backlash or wake up call?

    Personally, I find the hubris of nuclear advocates to be astounding. It didn’t take the ongoing crises in Japan to bring the inherent problems with the technology to my attention either.

    The nuclear industry seems to spend a lot of effort downplaying its problems and other averted disasters. Tritium in ground water? No problem. Decaying equipment? No problem. Vast amounts of radioactive waste stored in barrels at nuclear sites because a secure site can’t be found despite decades of effort? No problem. Nuclear waste and contaminated equipment crossing oceans, traversing waterways and passing through neighborhoods? Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

    Nuclear power generation is a failure. It’s dangerous and expensive. We don’t need it. And it isn’t a false choice between that and burning coal. Solutions exist. Some of them might be expensive but perhaps added costs would teach us to manage it more effectively. Energy efficiency, in America at least, is a joke.

    You can sit between your keyboard and your engineering degree on the wall behind you and feel superior whilst you spew your own ignorance (like, reporters actually care about selling ad space. God. Really?) but the fact remains that many nuclear supporters are only too happy to jump aboard the whiz-bang bandwagon because it’s easy to accept the word of “experts” and forget about that very important scientific adage, “Shit happens.”

    Whether the excrement is born of nature or man-made, when it happens at nuclear plants the result can be devastating.

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  5. “The guys who design and run these facilities actually KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING!”

    Citations please? Do they have a trade association that gives its member gold stars? At least when Hollywood does it it doesn’t seem so bad. Speaking of things, one manufacturer comes to mind – GE!

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  6. “Don’t expect the fear over Japan’s nuclear disaster to go away anytime soon. It’s taken decades for Chernobyl and Three Mile Island to fade in people’s memories.”

    And how long has it (or how long will it) take to fade from the actual landscape. I agree with the astonishment at the hubris of nuclear advocates. It’s pretty clear that we are dealing with a technology where few of the risks have reasonable solutions – waste storage (solved?), contingencies (anticipated?), costs (managed?).

    “…the cleanup of the damaged nuclear reactor system at Three Mile Island took nearly 12 years and cost approximately $973 million.”

    Yes, indeed, too cheap to meter.

    The nuclear industry would never survive a fair market fight.

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    1. Fair market fight? Crappola.

      How many power plants of any type do you know of in the United States that have been built without taxpayer support? Oh, say, since WW2?

      As usual, fair market libertarians rely on myth not reality.

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  7. Like the song says, “Sad – but true”. The last couple of posts being examples of what Katie expects, I expect, anyone who tries to base decisions on environment upon science, reason, modern engineering vs. ideology and cant – expects.

    My favorite analogy remains – do you choose your next automobile on the basis of your father’s 1979 Oldsmobile or look around at the range of contemporary choices?

    The “critics” who whine about hubris display exactly that style of reasoning. The plants with the problems in Japan were designed in the 1960’s. Since then, numerous advances in safety have been made and incorporated into the hundreds of nuclear power generation plants built – and have had no problems.

    Wallowing in self-pity over nuclear waste only confirms my opinion that most of today’s eco-activists don’t read a damned thing beyond agitprop. As someone who’s been active in environmental issues for 40+ years, that’s not a new phenomenon. But, 95% of the so-called nuclear waste generated by the ancient American nuclear power plants can be recycled.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen either. No doubt self-styled environmentalists would oppose that, as well.

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    1. To borrow your analogy, my Father’s 1979 Oldsmobile IS nuclear power. I look around at today’s technology and much prefer solar, wind, geothermal and other emerging sources mixed with storage including a dynamic V2G. Efficiency standards for buildings and household equipments could also go a long way to alleviating the need for generation over time.

      Contrary to your opinion, I think it is reasonable to consider the risk of radioactive pollution possible, if not probable, due to events natural or human-related over the time scale inherent in that technology. Indeed, to think otherwise makes it seem as though the glint from the whiz-bang tints your glasses a deep shade of rose. The fact that you’re unwilling to recognize the myriad of problems experienced at today’s nuclear generation facilities makes me wonder why you bother with eyewear at all, since you WILL not see.

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  8. there is no off switch therefore humanity is not ready for nuclear power.

    I was against it before Japan, but I will be helping to promote the world avoid nuclear power until we find technologies that can counter act radiation.

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  9. Katie – I’m pretty surprised that you chose to characterize the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi facility as a “disaster.” The quotation marks mean you think it’s all overblown. Do you honestly question the scope of this event? Is it not a disaster for the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve been evacuated? Partial meltdowns, for sure, and the distinct possibility of complete meltdowns and the irradiation of hundreds if not thousands of square miles with high-level radiation do not constitute a disaster for you? That, in the aftermath of the horrific tsunami, the Japanese authorities have to divert so much effort to dealing with the reactors is not an incredible extra burden on their country? The power loss and the financial burden are not disastrous? What exactly would a real disaster look like for you?! To the apologists for nuclear power, I can only say: Wow. Your indifference to the pain of these people and your blithe obliviousness to the inherent dangers of nuclear power are breathtaking.

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