Fukushima: Where It Stops, Nobody Knows

The staggering trifecta of disasters in Japan created images of horror that will last for decades.

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake shook buildings hundreds of miles away, sending office workers in Tokyo skyscrapers scrambling under desks while trembling video recorded the screams of terrified occupants and the freakish sight of rippling floors and walls.

A massive tsunami of proportions unimaginable without helicopter-based footage for documentation swept away seemingly endless numbers of buildings and vehicles as if they were toys, drowning untold thousands of people.

But, it was the accidents at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear powerplant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tokyo: T) that made for the most chilling legacy.  Although several spectacular explosions beset the plant – all for the lack of robust systems to keep supplying cooling water in the wake of the destruction of the earthquake and tsunami – it was what couldn’t be seen that bothered people the most:  the invisible radioactive emissions and the scary (if not fully-grounded) fears of torturous poisoning from clouds floating downwind thousands of miles that captured the world’s attention.

Although it seems as though the worst of the situation is finally behind us, it will be some time until some degree of stability returns to Fukushima.  “Normalcy” will not return to that area for many decades, perhaps centuries. 

With the crisis past now its most critical point, just about everyone on the planet is reassessing the future place of nuclear in the global energy equation.

Germany has ordered a shutdown and review of the older segment of its nuclear powerplant fleet, and China suspended for the time being the approval process for new nuclear plants.  In the U.S., President Obama has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reassess the safety of U.S. nuclear powerplants, especially those that are most exposed to the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis, most notably as San Onofre and Diablo Canyon along the coastline of Southern California.

General Electric (NYSE:  GE), the supplier of the nuclear technology at Fukushima, suffered significant declines in its stock price, as investors and traders worried that GE would be liable in some manner to some degree for the enormous costs and consequences that are likely to be borne for years to come in tending to Fukushima – which is almost certainly destined to become, like Chernobyl, an entombed monument never to operate again, surrounded by vast swaths of abandoned land.

Even with all this angst, no-one really knows what Fukushima means in the long-term for nuclear energy – whether it’s a knockout blow or merely an admittedly severe setback.  I’ve asked several friends active in various aspects of energy for their perspectives on the Fukushima disaster, and there’s a collective shrug and hand-wringing reflecting a general bewilderment.

Far be it from me to suggest I have a clearer view than my esteemed colleagues.  However, these are the questions that I think need to be asked and answered to develop a consensus by respected voices from the energy industry – both inside and outside nuclear – if the so-called “nuclear renaissance” promised over the past couple of years will in fact ever materialize post-Fukushima.

  • What can the nuclear industry do to convincingly assure the public’s trust that the authorities are really telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  Apparently, many Japanese had historically been highly distrustful of their nuclear authorities — based on previous examples of real or perceived deceit, cover-ups, lies, etc. — before Fukushima.  Even the U.S. government indicated at times that they weren’t sure they were being fully informed about conditions at Fukushima.  As a friend of mine — who possesses a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering — commented to me at one point last week, “They’ve stopped communicating, which means they’re either too busy to communicate, or they don’t want us to know.  Either way, it’s bad.”   This distrust is not unique to Japan.  Any industry that has Homer Simpson (the Safety Inspector at the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant) as its most visible icon is going to struggle to maintain a confident public.
  • How can everyone be sure that the lack of sufficient cooling water in the wake of a disaster will never befall a nuclear plant again?  If there’s anything a nuclear reactor must have, it’s continued access to cooling water under any and all contingencies.  In the case of Fukushima, the power lines were swept away and the diesel backup generators were swamped by the tsunami, eliminating the capability to keep the reactors cool — hence, the cascading failures.  Every nuclear powerplant needs to be proven to have multiple levels of redundancy on cooling water supplies.   
  • How would evacuation plans really work?  As part of its operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the operator of a nuclear plant must file an emergency preparedness plan.  A “full-scale exercise” is required every two years, but it’s far from clear that these “exercises” are indicative of how a sure-to-be-panicked public would respond.  For certain plants, such as Indian Point less than fifty miles north of Manhattan, a truly effective evacuation seems fanciful.
  • What is the next-best solution for baseload supply of electricity available today and for many decades to come?  With nuclear now clearly out of favor, general antipathy towards coal power due to its environmental impacts, and the widely-held desire for energy prices to be as cheap as absolutely possible, the only remaining option for 24/7 power generation at any meaningful scale would appear to be natural gas generation.  To be sure, with the recent boom in domestic production from shale gas reserves, it seems as though there’s an abundance of natural gas and low prices to last for years to come.  However, this was also the prevailing sentiment during the 1990s, spawning a slew of new natural gas powerplants that chewed up all of the seeming glut of natural gas, thus driving natural gas prices to historic levels before the economic collapse in 2008.  No reason in my mind it can’t happen again in the 2010s.
  • What are the true, full costs of nuclear energy?  If there’s anything obvious about Fukushima, it’s that the costs of building and operating a nuclear plant are now much, much higher than they were a few weeks ago.  Exactly how expensive remains unclear.  Even before the incident, the full costs of nuclear energy were obscured from the public in a variety of ways, such as the large R&D expenditures by the government on nuclear technologies.  Arguably, the costs associated with waste disposal, plant decommissioning, and emergency response have been underfunded over all of these years of nuclear operations; for certain, a definitive approach for the waste disposal issue has been continually deferred for decades.  Perhaps the most obvious subsidy is the DOE loan guarantee program, which makes the taxpayer the creditor of last resort in the event of default by a nuclear powerplant owner.  If a Fukushima-type situation were ever to occur in the U.S., it is virtually certain that the owner would be financially broken, leaving the U.S. citizen to pick up a bill that is truly incalculable.

Until there’s a much higher degree of comfort that there are good answers to these questions, it doesn’t seem likely to me that there will be significant public acceptance of nuclear energy as a viable option for new choices to be made in the future.  In which case, the previously-coalescing-but-fragile support for nuclear from across the political spectrum (see Time article from just six months ago) will have splintered, perhaps a Humpty-Dumpty never to be put back together again.

In concluding, I will restate my record as saying that I’m not necessarily opposed to nuclear energy, and support it under the right conditions:

  • The plant needs to be located at a sensible site
  • The operator needs to have an excellent operational record and processes for maximizing safety without concern for cutting-corners to maximize profits
  • A sound and scalable permanent waste disposal process must exist

We as a country are failing the third test, and in many cases, the first two aren’t in place either. 

Will a Fukushima happen here?  Probably not.  Can a Fukushima happen here?  Yes.

Should we get panicky?  No.  Should we be more concerned, and be willing to pay more attention (and money)?  Yes.

3 replies
  1. Lawrence Comras
    Lawrence Comras says:

    This is one of the most comprehensive and clear summaries of the situation I have read. I would only comment that the issue with nuclear power is that the real caveats we would need to follow are, unfortunately, just a little out of our reach as human beings. I would only request that you consider what you have seen in your own life about how incompetent human beings are, and how all the measures and safeguards in the world (your "right conditions") can't protect us from sheer human nature, which shows that while the ultimate reality may not be quite as horrible as Murphy's Law, the reason there is a Murphy's Law is to make us appreciate how prone to error we really are. We have to plan systems that take that into account, and be honest about building systems where – because they are so powerful and hard to control – we may not be able to account for all options and corner cases. If we're honest, that’s the situation with nuclear power. We have to admit that we really don't know how nuclear power works, that mismanaged it has the potential to cause untold human misery and suffering, and that when we use it we're in way over our head. It's hard to admit this limitation, especially so because we need it so bad. But that can't be a reason to embrace it. Murphy was an optimist.

  2. Maria
    Maria says:

    Althought the threat of a nuclear contamination for Europe and other continents is mostly banned, there is still the problem with shippings from Japan and surrounding areas. In response to the recent nuclear crisis in Japan, authorities in some countries have ordered more stringent border controls and/or laboratory tests for products coming from Japan and surrounding Asian countries, in order to prevent contamination and detect levels of radiation. Let's just hope the “Radiation Residue Scan Services" will completely prevent the import of contaminated products. (source: http://tinyurl.com/67b8rcb)

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