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The Real Nuclear Lesson

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Amongst the devastation of the worst earthquake to hit Japan in over one hundred years, a series of man-made structures stood firm.  Japan’s nuclear reactors have come under a critical media spotlight in recent days but the real news is how well these second generation reactors successfully shut down to sub-criticality and maintained their integrity while all around was a picture of destruction.

Japan's nuclear reactors stood firm

It was the subsequent impact of thirty foot tsunami waves knocking out back-up generators and flooding secondary cooling systems that caused pressure levels to build in the reactors’ outer containment at Fukushima.  The resultant blasts have been replayed on television but the real lesson is this: If reactors can successfully withstand one of the world’s biggest ever earthquakes, surely the technology has little more to prove in terms of its overall operational safety.  The Tohoku earthquake has demonstrated just how safe nuclear power actually is.

Of course, anti-nuclear advocates swooped into television studios to cast their denunciations even as the tragedy unfolded.  For nuclear detractors, a partial melting of fuel within a sealed unit appears to have no bounds in terms of its possible consequence.  The release from the blast at unit 2, though short-lived, brought “told you so” admonishments.  The line is that a man-made tragedy has been added to a natural one.

But with the reactor vessels in two of the damaged units remaining largely intact, and the third now expected to stabilize without creating a prolonged release, Fukushima has defiantly denied nuclear opponents the failure they so triumphantly seek.

The seriousness of events should not be magnified any more than it should be downplayed.  Workers have been injured trying to stabilize the reactors and one has been killed by a crane.  A radioactive release did occur, although it is nothing like the magnitude from Chernobyl in 1986.  Defueling and remedial operations will be complex and take time.  Reactors flooded with seawater will not operate again.

At the same time, TEPCO and Japanese regulators should be praised for dealing so successfully with the technical challenges they so suddenly faced.  They should also be commended for resourcefulness in issuing regular status updates on the internet – in English.

What are the other lessons?  Regulators will surely examine how to better protect electrical systems from tsunami waves in the future. The latest generation of reactors are designed with passive features that reduce reliance on electrical power to run safety systems.

We might also conclude that reprocessing spent fuel and vitrifying high level waste has advantages over keeping discharged fuel elements on site.  And we might gain the perspective that natural disasters are far more powerful and complex than climate change alarmists would have us believe.

Alas, it has become predictable that the media will draw the wrong conclusions.  The major lesson at Fukushima is that nuclear reactors are robust.  The case for building more of them has been strengthened.

11 Comments add one

  1. I hope your assessment is right, I really do. But this situation is moving so fast that I’m holding back from any judgement other than agreeing with you that the structural integrity of the plant has passed this horrific test. For now, my thoughts are with the people and the politics of this can go to you know where – the people who are fighting to contain the damage and bring the situation under control and the people living there who are scared witless. We both know Japan well and so we both know that at times like this there will be a surfeit of information and almost no facts.

    My heart goes out to the people who must make personal decisions in this sort of situation. People like Mari who’s Japanese and is working round the clock at the British Embassy trying to account for every UK citizen. Or Richard, a Brit, who’s decided it’s time to head for mainland Asia with his Japanese family just in case. Or the guy at Fukushima who’s thinking of volunteering to stay at the station and take the real life-threatening risks that confront him because he’s concluded that as a 55 year old with no parents to care for or family to bring up any more, it’s better that he should be there than the young guy with so much opportunity ahead of him. I don’t know this guy. I don’t even know if he’s made the decision yet and I pray he doesn’t have to. But while the possibility remains that he might, well, my thoughts are with him.

  2. Brian Spooner says:

    Like Tom, I cannot comment at present on integrity of the plants but my take on the media is that it also should hold back on making judgements. The priority at this time is that we focus on the Japanese people and their predicament and how we can assist. The one area that I can agree on is that reprocessing spent fuel and vitrifying high level waste has advantages over keeping discharged fuel elements on site.

  3. Carl M says:

    Since when did the media hold back on making a judgment? haha

  4. Imforthewhales says:

    I seriously doubt that your final summation is correct. If anything this will only frighten people off nuclear energy and rightly so. People are vry poor judges when it comes to the long term and anyone who believes the nuclear apologists that tell you that this energy is a safe on is a complete and utter fool.

  5. “We might also conclude that reprocessing spent fuel and vitrifying high level waste has advantages over keeping discharged fuel elements on site.” You are spot on. However, even if Fukushima turns out to be worse than Three Mile Island but not as bad as Chernobyl, nuclear energy will remain the least harmful major energy source of all – in terms of deaths caused, injuries and wider negative health repercussions. The truth is, reality is so far divorced from perception that truth-tellers have a credibility problem…

  6. A Patriot says:

    In man’s history there have been incidents of disasters that have killed thousands, if not millions of people. Despite those incidents we have continued to live our lives even in the shadow that there may be recurrences of those disasters.

    For example, the Titanic sank when she struck an iceberg, yet we continued to sail on ships and we have instituted procedures in hopes they would prevent a similar incident from reoccurring. Yet there have been other occurrences of passenger ships sinking from one cause or another and we continue to sail on passenger ships. We have thousands of passengers killed in plane accidents by pilot error, mechanical defects or terrorist action. From Lockerbie, to 9/11, and the Concorde as well as many others incidents from 1920 to today, yet we continue to fly by the millions despite those historic airline disasters. We have had numerous space flight catastrophes from Apollo 1 that killed Gus Grisome, Edward H. White II and Roger Bruce Chaffee, to Apollo 13. Also the Shuttle flights disasters Columbia and Challenger that killed 13 astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher and yet we continue to fly into space knowing the risks.

    New Orleans is a city below sea level and has endured numerous floodings from hurricanes but I do not recall hearing our nation order the city to be moved to higher ground which would be the prudent thing to do to prevent future hurricanes from flooding the city and killing the residents.

    Yet when it comes to disasters such as the Exxon Valdez, the BP oil spill in the Gulf and Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster we hear calls to review our use of energy worldwide to consider eliminating these sources of fuels. We allow our fears to rule our thoughts rather than our common sense to find solutions to those disasters. We allow radicals to manipulate our politicians into over legislating our industries rather than working with those industries to identify preventive measures to mitigate future disasters.

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

  7. @Paul – Slow down, Paul. Yes, some truth tellers have a credibility problem for those reasons. Others have a seemingly uncontrollable desperate-urge-to-commit-to-print problem. There’s a time and a place for everything and I’m afraid your comments here – and the post I read on your site a few days ago – fall into the category (purely IMO) remarks that haven’t helped what you loosely call the truth tellers. Although they may have attracted comments and visits to your site. 

  8. Veronica says:

    Gavin,

    You might be surprised to find your views on Fukushima echoed, at least in part, by no less a seasoned anti-nuclear campaigner of old, the Guardian’s George Monbiot.
    “Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry,” Monbiot wrote in his Guardian column on 21 March last. “Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”

    There are, I think, several reasons why the green movement reaction to Fukushima has been so muted and devoid of strident denunciation and calls for immediate shut-down of the industry worldwide. There have been no mass demonstrations led on local nuclear power stations in Europe as occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago.
    First among reasons, Monbiot’s article exemplifies the split in recent years among traditional ‘environmentalists’ over nuclear power, borne of a recognition that if the climate policy objective of decarbonisation of energy supplies is a priority issue, then there is no choice but to embrace nuclear generation of electricity as the only large scale, base load, viable alternative to fossil fuels.
    Second, in times of economic austerity – with some of us feeling the harsh winds of austerity more than others – the general public has more urgent priorities of jobs and economic security on their minds than worrying overmuch about a nuclear power station calamity in far-away Japan, as the radioactive fallout is unlikely to have any impact either locally in the US or the Europe in any case. Besides, it would be insensitive in the face of so many lives lost and communities destroyed by the tsunami, that not even the best built tsunami defences in the world could keep at bay, to start whining about a radiation risk that’s so self-evidently remote. The UK tabloids that sought to whip up public risk-aversion hysteria on the back of events at Fukushima have largely found themselves laughed out of it.
    Third, whilst the public have residual concerns about the expense of nuclear construction and the still difficult issue of nuclear waste disposal, anyone with half a brain recognizes that there is no way that the western world is going to walk away from this technology and keep the lights on in homes and factories. Despite all the exaggerated hype of the past two decades, the ‘green dawn’ of renewables has not arrived, except in most citizens’ experience of added subsidy costs to their energy bills to sustain the renewables sector. Since it doesn’t take much wit, either, to work out that such subsidies are primarily directed towards those wealthy enough to have large enough roofs and deep enough pockets for SV panels and so on, this transfer of wealth from poor to rich is hardly conducive to winning public hearts and minds in favour of a renewables’ revolution. That many among the green movement intelligentsia now publicly acknowledge that renewables will not be able to make up the gap between energy supply and demand in the future is hardly persuasive either.
    Where I think the nuclear industry have mishandled their response to the Fukushima incident has been in their framing it as ‘exceptional circumstances’. Chernobyl was ‘exceptional’ too; as was Three Mile Island before it and Windscale ’57 before that. The problem is that the most strenuous safety systems in the world cannot plan for ‘exceptional’ events; so there is always the possibility that unanticipated conditions will arise that will result in a major nuclear accident at some time – maybe even another twenty five years – in the future. I also think that smaller countries that might have considered the nuclear option for their energy supply, and many international energy investors, may be put off by the Fukushima incident. If, as happened with TMI, a multi-million investment in nuclear power could be wiped out by dint of human error, technical failure or some bizarre ‘Act of God’ within a few weeks of coming on line, then there must surely be safer havens for one’s money.

  9. Gavino says:

    I wonder if Monbiot might be writing for the Times in a few years… There are none so passionate as the self-converted – those who embrace a different perspective with just as much passion and righteousness as they formerly devoted to the one now jettisoned… I take great heart by the third reason that you identify to explain why Fukushima has not energized the anti-nuclear movement as much as might have been expected. If people can be so rational and pragmatic on an issue that is often reported in an emotional manner, that can only be a good thing for economic development and prosperity. Perhaps its time for some brave politician (an oxymoron?) to campaign on ending all taxpayer subsidies for renewables… Each of the four nuclear events you list were exceptional in their own way. Accepting your point, the question begs how the nuclear industry should refer to and characterize Fukushima… Also, have you noticed that there are almost no nuclear advocates out there? The industry itself retreats into talking about, as you say, exceptional circumstances, and asserting that “it couldn’t happen here” but there are very few people out there making the points you and I (and Monbiot) are making. And I still have one foot in the nuclear industry anyway…

  10. Veronica says:

    Gavin,
    I wouldn’t be so hard on the poor old politicians – in western style democracies they have short electoral cycles to cope with, forcing them to respond to fickle public opinion if they want re-election. That such a requirement doesn’t really suit energy/environment policy decisions operating on much longer time cycles, and around which public debate is inevitably polarised and invariably fickle, goes without saying. Though democracy may have its flaws, it’s still far superior to the alternatives!
    Today is the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and as far as I can judge, most of the coverage is low-key and specific to that incident rather than a general polemic against nuclear energy, as might have been anticipated. It bears out the point that the whole nuclear debate has been ‘reframed’ in the public consciousness in the intervening years, and even Fukushoma can’t change that. One wonders if the green movement have made a major strategic error in inextricably linking their climate change campaign so closely with energy use? It has left them with some uncomfortable bedfellows, like nuclear, and given the manifest failure, and expense, of renewables as any viable substitute for fossil fuels or nuclear power they have damaged their case in the court of public opinion as well.
    Spain, Germany and Italy have already dismantled subsidy schemes for SV technologies and other EU countries are following suit. The wind industry is on its knees too, as investors shy away, perhaps fearing that handsome government subsidies of the past will not be continued. But I don’t believe it’s possible or desirable for governments to entirely withdraw subsidies from the long term development of alternative energy generation systems or even from proven technologies such as nuclear. Nuclear is still heavily subsidised and would never have got off the ground as a technology with government aid and, one way or another, in their heyday fossil fuels enjoyed preferential treatment too and continue to do so through various mechanisms. What’s at issue in the renewable sector is the kind of subsidisation that takes place and whether it is focused on innovations to make alternative technologies (a) efficient and (b) ‘cheap in use’ rather than boosting their wholesale adoption. It also appears to be the case that in times of economic retrenchment, expensive renewables like the solar panels on the back roof or the geothermal pump in the back garden lose their ‘status’ value with consumers, so that demand slumps for these micro-generation baubles.
    As for the nuclear industry, and advocates for it, I’m beginning to think that strong advocates for any form of energy generation do more harm than good to the technology they promote in the long run. They have to engage in too much ‘spinning’ for one thing, ignoring risks and downsides inherent in what amounts to a preferred technology choice tinged with personal ideological preferences.
    Less advocacy, more facts, and a recognition that all large scale energy technologies carry risk and none can ever be made ‘foolproof’ or immune to ‘unintended consequences’ might be a good place to start.

  11. Gavino says:

    It seems that our need for energy inevitably leads to a need to find a balance between politics and economics. As you know, I am highly suspicious of any system that relies on bureaucrats and politicians to make the best choices. In general, I don’t see how governments have helped – they have made self-sufficient America highly dependent on oil imports and shackled Europe in a pointless cap and trade tax system that has pushed up costs for consumers. By and large, renewables are square pegs being pushed into round holes by a supposedly enlightened political class. End subsidies and idiotic restrictions on oil and gas development and all sorts of good things will happen to energy supply and prices. Perhaps if energy wasn’t so politicized, folks wouldn’t waste time debating the supposed risks… But I guess de-politicization isn’t going to happen any time soon…