I N · T H I S · I S S U E
Crisis at Daiichi
Disaster and widespread terror – civilian reactor style - Japan.
So far, two units appear to have suffered partial meltdowns, one’s core may be breached, another on fire. Six are now reported “runaways.” Can this be real? Fuel rods are melting as I write. Anti-nuclear activists have genuinely feared this for years. This is the chain saw that cut the butter; a technology out of control, 150 miles north of Tokyo.
Prime Minister Angela Merkel will now re-examine Germany’s plan to renew 12 reactors; seven retirement-age plants will be closed immediately. The Swiss government has put expansion plans on hold. Austria has called on its utilities to do additional stress-testing of its plants. U.S. Senator Lieberman, a proponent, says that we should “put the brakes on new nuclear plants” until we understand the ramifications of the crisis. Obama holds the line. Meltdown at Daiichi.
With no oil and gas, and limited coal, Japan has been pursuing a goal of energy self sufficiency. Japan has painful and direct experience with radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While some say nuclear is vital to the country, it is unpopular. A 1999 safety leak at a processing facility in Tsuruga reinforced this national distaste, with contamination 11,500 times the safety limit.
Nevertheless, nuclear power has been seen as a key ingredient in Japan’s energy future. Its nuclear program is hailed as one of the most technologically advanced with 54 reactors at 17 plants providing 30% of the country’s power. Japanese plants are designed for seismic safety; Japan is prominently located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, known for earthquakes and eruptions. Two reactors are currently under construction. Japan is the only country that continues to conduct breeder reactor research since France shut down its SuperPhoenix project.
Far from shoddy construction or operation in a third world country, this disaster involves the pre-eminent nuclear country, an advanced GE nuclear, not Chernobyl-style reactor operations absent of core containment. The 1986 Chernobyl accident killed 56 plant and fire workers, its radiation causing cancers and deaths in at least 4,000 others in the region. The region is still contaminated with cesium-137. In Daiichi, 200,000 have been evacuated so far, many more warned to stay indoors. The marginal costs of renewables look small.
In the U.S., 104 reactors operating at 64 plants, also situated in fault zones and tsunami threatened areas, provide about 20% of the nation’s plug in demand. The two most threatened straddle the San Andreas fault along the coast of California. They are reportedly designed to withstand 7.0 magnitude earthquakes, much smaller than the 1906 San Francisco 8.3 earthquake, and 125 time smaller than the 8.9 that hit Daiichi. Fear of sabotage raises concerns about plants closest to major population centers.
The U.S. nuclear industry has been very quiet since Three Mile Island in 1979. Now President Obama wants $36 billion in nuclear insurance to subsidize the industry. There are 20 applications for new reactors being considered by federal regulators, plus repowering. Some say there’s been a “nuclear renaissance” in Washington, and even among environmentalists, a revival whose chilling costs are unfolding before us. One cannot grasp the logic of this secure form of energy.