As the nuclear scenario plays out in Japan, many countries including America, are reassessing the risk/reward relationship in using nuclear power plants to generate energy. As many scientists and politicians will tell you, this disaster in Japan can be used as a learning experience for those nations who have not experienced such devastation. Or maybe not.
That esteemed GOP leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has stated that the current crisis in Japan should not be used in the analysis of our long-term decisions regarding our own nuclear power plants. Here is a very good article on precisely this issue of not using history to our benefit, to learn from our mistakes. The author calls this folly “The Japan Syndrome.” Granted, Chernobyl was not a Three Mile Island and the situation in Japan is neither of those. Yet the bottom line remains: the effects of all three disasters, the nuclear toxicity, will be with us for generations upon generations to come.
One glaring omission from this article is that never, in our entire nuclear history, has the U.S. developed a viable plan and implemented a storage facility for nuclear waste. Sure: we went ahead and built the facility at Yucca Mountain, but it has never been used due to the newly discovered geological fault line running under the site, the burgeoning population in Las Vegas and political expediency.
In my own simplistic, non-scientific understanding of nuclear power, I am dumbfounded that we built tens of nuclear plants decades before we had a repository in place for their spent fuel. Even the most scientifically naive observer would sat “WTF?” To add insult to injury, the GE-designed reactors in Japan and the many we have on our own soil, discard the spent rods into a cooling pond for storage. However, that cooling process is run by electricity, which can be cut off by terrorist activity and the rare chance, yet as we have seen in Japan the reality, of a natural catastrophe. As improbable as such a devastating event may be, it can happen and should damn well be considered when building reactors of this design. Here is an informative editorial from today’s New York Times on exactly this issue.
I will be the first person to attest to my lack of seismic knowledge. However, after much reading and picking the brains of those in the know, there are some common sense precautions all nations should abide by in order to minimize the threat of nuclear contamination:
1. Do not build these reactors on top of or near a fault line. The fact that many nuclear reactors in the U.S. ARE erected near fault lines is not compensated by the scientific calculations and forethought of the probability of the largest quake that ever hit that area, plus even a bit more leeway for a margin of error. The unexpected can and will occur; we need only to look at the events in Japan for confirmation of a system that ultimately based their reliance on a wing and a prayer.
2. Likewise, nuclear reactors should not be built close to population centers. Parameters of hundreds of miles is much more reasonable than tens of miles.
3. The cooling system must be passive, i.e. not dependent on electricity for cooling. Moreover, this cooling process should be redundant, as should the containment structure. Once the safety parameters are worked out, those requirements should have a double, triple or even a quadruple redundancy.
4. Aging nuclear plants should be routinely de-commissioned, even if they are still functioning properly. Patch jobs, renovations and upgrades will not substitute for a total shutdown.
5. The renewed building of nuclear reactors should cease and desist until there is a plan and a facility for the safe storage of nuclear waste. Keep in mind though, such a reliable place just may not exist when considering the toxicity and life of nuclear materials.
6. If the government and regulatory bodies pass stringent rules, they will be useless unless they are strictly overseen and regulated. Hefty penalties must be assessed if the rules are ignored or broken and the plants that have violated the established protocols should be swiftly de-commissioned. All the requirements in the world will not help an industry that does not actively police its own laws.
The above items are, I am sure even despite my deep lack of scientific knowledge, just the tip of the iceberg for a safer, revamped nuclear power industry. Know that even if these common sense guidelines are followed, there will always be real risk associated with nuclear power. When we are dealing with one of the most poisonous, polluting and long-lived energy forms available on earth, the uncertainty and power of devastation is real. The differing opinions on the active half-lives of the by-products of fission, which occurs in a nuclear plant meltdown as a result of the nuclear decaying process, are neither here nor there. When uranium breaks down, fission causes the release of cesium and strontium, both having half-lives of approximately 30 years, which translates into decades or even centuries of toxicity. I am not scientifically sophisticated enough to understand the longevity estimates of environmental effects that nuclear waste can have, but Mother Earth can experience those toxic effects for decades, centuries or even tens of thousands of years.
The economic rewards of choosing nuclear power over some other form must be weighed carefully. Certainly though, when weighing the risks and rewards of nuclear power, the fact remains that prioritizing economics over safety is a futile strategy. The costs of developing and implementing alternative, renewable forms of energy, such as solar and wind power, seems well-worth the avoidance of a nuclear holocaust. Additionally, if the necessary regulations for a viable nuclear industry are implemented and enforced, I daresay the cheaper costs of nuclear power would not be cheaper any longer. Most relevant, alternative energy strategies certainly, in a worst-case scenario (which I hope we now know MUST be a consideration), would create no such long-term, devastating toll on our planet and human population.
If America and the rest of the world refuses to reassess their committment to nuclear power in a meaningful way, it will be sayonara to our sanity as well as ourselves.