The recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which shut down several reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex in northeastern Japan, followed by a failure of the backup cooling systems that resulted in hydrogen gas explosions and fires, has me re-evaluating my support for nuclear power. Non-nuclear technology, such as clean coal, is looking even better than when I wrote about it here on WUWT (see this and this).
Don’t get me wrong, I still favor nuclear power as part of what Sen. John McCain called an “all of the above” energy policy. We need all the energy we can get to power a vibrant, growing world economy. Our energy future should include nuclear along with clean coal, gas, oil, and renewables, as well as improved energy efficiency and usage. I welcomed the recent resurgence in interest in building more nuclear power plants in the US, a policy supported by both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Obama re-iterated that support today.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF NUCLEAR AND CLEAN COAL POWER
The graphic lists the major pros and cons for nuclear and clean coal electrical power technology.
Nuclear is Clean & “Green”, with no production of “greenhouse” gases (GHGs). The waste products, while radioactive, are relatively small in quantity and can be stored safely when proper procedures are followed. US and other well designed nuclear plants, with substantial containment vessels, have been relatively safe. There has been no loss of life (though Fukushima may change that fact). Finally, nuclear fuel is reasonable in cost, and represents only a small portion of the cost of generation of electricity.
On the negative side, the media over-hypes nuclear accidents, emphasizing the worst that could happen. Radioactive waste disposal is a difficult issue mainly due to political opposition and over-played fears of the unknown.
Clean Coal technology is ready for prime time in the US, where the fuel is plentiful. Coal may be gasified or liquefied at the mine site, for more convenient transport and use. As I pointed out on WUWT, CO2 Is Plant Food which should be used to improve agricultural yields in elevated CO2 greenhouses, rather than what seems to me to be a foolish idea of sequestering CO2 in abandoned oilwells.
On the negative side, coal trains have been dubbed “death trains” by Global Warming Alarmists, such as James Hansen, the head of NASA GISS. The supposed possibility of human-caused, catastrophic “runaway warming” (CAGW) has been way, way over-hyped and is more political than science-based. On the other hand, coal and other fossil fuel technology is responsible for some air pollution and disposal of the waste products can be troublesome.
SUPPORT FOR NUCLEAR POWER
In Fukushima, there has been a partial meltdown of some of the cores, release of some radioactive gases into the atmosphere, and there remains a real risk of further radioactive material spewing over the surrounding countryside. The news is bad for the nuclear industry worldwide. As happened with Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, the media are over-hyping the dangers. Even if the crisis doesn’t worsen, it may be a long time before the nuclear industry regains its footing.
While bicycling in France a few years ago, I was impressed by the nuclear powerplants that seemed to be everywhere. See here for an account of how we were almost arrested for trespassing at one plant. Decades ago, the French made a major commitment to nuclear from which they now get some 80% of their electrical power.
In contrast, the US gets only about 20%. Less than a year ago, I kayaked fairly close to the nuclear plant at Crystal River, Florida, that happily co-exists with dolphins and paddlers. When the US cautioned Americans living within 50 miles of the Fukushima nuclear plant to evacuate or stay indoors, I was relieved that I live a full 52 miles from Crystal River, but concerned abut the fact that plant is 34 years old.
The 1979 movie The China Syndrome dramatized a hypothetical, catastrophic core meltdown, where the molten material burns through the bottom of the containment vessel and melts partway through the crust of the earth. Of course, the molten material could not actually penetrate all the way to China, but the coincidence of this movie coming out only a short time before Three Mile Island essentially shut down the US nuclear industry for three decades.
In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Russia had the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, sending radioactive materials over parts of Russia and other areas in Europe. That plant had no containment vessel so there is no basis of comparison to either Three Mile Island or Fukushima.
The Japanese earthquake, and -especially- the resultant tsunami flooding, has most likely resulted in the deaths of 10,000 or more people who were living in low-lying fishing villages along the coastline. Yet, no one is calling for an end to fishing villages.
Though the Three Mile Island accident resulted in no deaths at all, and the Fukushima accident will most likely have only a limited number of casualties, there is a hue and cry to close existing nuclear plants and reverse the recent resurgence in interest in expansion of “green” nuclear power. I think that reaction, while all too human and understandable from an emotional standpoint, is unwise.
SYSTEM ENGINEERING FAILURE
Although my bachelors is in Electrical Engineering, I do not claim to be any kind of expert on electrical power plants. However, based on my long career conceptualizing and designing highly reliable, robust and redundant military avionic systems, and my advanced degrees in System Science, I do know something about complex systems. In my opinion, both Three Mile Island and Fukushima were system engineering failures. Yes, there were hardware failures in both cases, but the major fault was in how the system was designed and how the operators misunderstood what was actually occuring and how best to reverse or limit the damage.
According to Wikipedia:
The [Three Mile Island] accident began … with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant’s user interface.
In Fukushima, the backup systems proved to be inadequate. It appears that the earthquake or, more likely, the flooding due to the tsunami, disabled the backup generators which were supposed to power the pumps and keep the cooling water flowing over the cores. There was also a battery backup that failed. It is not clear if the automatic shut-down system worked properly. With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, it is clear that the backup generators should have been sited above above the maximum flooding level or otherwise protected from water damage. The connection between Fukushima and the national electrical grid was severed by the tsunami. A new power line is currently being run to that plant and, when connected, it may power the pumps if they are still operational.
The system and design engineers most likely thought that power for the pumps would be available from other nuclear generators in the complex, or, in a reasonably short time period, from the national electrical grid. They seem to have ignored the possibility that a single incident would shut down all the generators as well as the backups and access to the grid. Of course, at 8.9 or 9.1, this was over 100 times more powerful an earthquake than the 7.0 for which the system was apparenty designed. However, backup systems must be designed to withstand whatever might cause the primary systems to fail. This they failed to do.