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Assessing nuclear power

May 16, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 20

It is fascinating that the editorial titled “Nuclear’s Vulnerability” (C&EN, April 18, page 2) begins its discussion of nuclear power with two very well-known disasters connected with the nuclear power industry, Chernobyl and Fukushima, yet omits the disturbingly long string of accidents and disasters related to nuclear power and its associated materials production that go back to the 1950s. The editorial also completely omits what could be called the decades-long fiscal disaster that is the enormous government and taxpayer subsidies required to bring this potentially deadly form of power into existence.

Discussions of this sort are more complete when we consider the Soviet explosion in Mayak in 1957 (unknown to the West until 1980); the NRX and NRU accidents in Canada in 1952 and 1958, respectively; the radioactivity release from Windscale in England in 1957; the fatalities associated with the explosion near Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 1961; releases in France; or the many other leaks or near misses that have been recorded. Does any other power source have a track record as bad and as poisonous as nuclear?

Similarly, if we examine government spending to bolster this power source and congressional legislation that forces taxpayers to pay for the repair of facilities where accidents might occur, it is hard to find any other business in the U.S. that requires this much government intervention. Left on its own in a competitive market, nuclear power would never exist. It simply cannot make a profit. It is truly sad to look at the dollars spent over the past seven decades and imagine what world we might now have if all this expenditure had been put to solar, wind, and wave power.

The editorial wisely asks: “How do you plan and prepare for the unknown and the unpredictable?” The better question is, What has brought us to this form of planning, when every other power source ever conceived of does not require planning that involves scattered radioactivity, with all the death; polluted land, water, and air; and loss associated with nuclear? In short, why are we still even considering more nuclear power? Is it just our arrogance, thinking we’ll get it right this time? We won’t.

Mark A. Benvenuto

The summaries of both the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters provide accurate, high-level descriptions of both events. Despite these two events, one of which could have been easily avoided, nuclear power remains very safe and continues to account for about 20% of global power.

The editorial brings up questions about considerations for safety in nuclear power plants including seismic events and other possible failures. Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations put exhaustive considerations into the location, construction, and safety of nuclear power plants. Among these considerations are requirements for testing related to worst-case seismic conditions associated with the location of a particular nuclear power plant. Design and engineering requirements are based around safety even in the event of items such as valve failures, pipe ruptures, and other equipment failures. Many of the hypothetical safety questions the editorial asks have long since been considered and answered.

The nuclear accidents at both Chernobyl and Fukushima were caused by the same inherent plant design flaw, which is that both of these nuclear power plant designs require electric power to operate pumps to cool the reactor. If there is disruption of the main power grid, auxiliary generators are relied upon to provide power to the pumps. In the case of Chernobyl, the generators were deliberately bypassed for an ill-advised and very dangerous test. In the case of Fukushima, the pumps were flooded by a tsunami and rendered inoperable. Tsunami risk and other flooding events are new considerations for proper placement of nuclear sites. Ironically, the old and outdated reactors at Fukushima that were put in service in the early 1970s were scheduled to be shut down only months after the accident.

Clearly, relying on diesel generators as a backup to cool the reactor core is not the safest technology. However, new reactor designs use passive, gravity-based cooling systems to provide cooling water to the reactor core in accident conditions, thereby making these designs inherently much safer. The prospect of a nuclear accident is very scary, but much engineering work goes into making this technology safe.

Brian G. Risch
Claremont, N.C.

I was strongly disappointed in the misinformation found in “Nuclear’s Vulnerability.” The Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns were not “the worst-ever nuclear disaster” in Japan’s history—that would be the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Furthermore, the Fukushima earthquake and resulting meltdowns were by no means “an extreme event that was impossible to predict”—quite the opposite. Serious lapses in safety culture at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and in Japan’s nuclear industry have been well-known and documented since at least the Tokaimura accident in 1999, however necessary improvements were not taken, owing largely to regulatory capture.

In 2008 TEPCO itself identified that a tsunami following a large earthquake of a magnitude common in Japan would lead to loss of cooling and a potential meltdown, but TEPCO declined to build a higher seawall at an estimated cost of $25 million, mere pennies in comparison to the damage that has been inflicted on the Fukushima countryside.

Thomas Stratton

The editorial states: “In the case of Fukushima, it was an extreme event that was impossible to predict.” Not so. This catastrophe was entirely preventable.

There was a very recent (on a human timescale, let alone on a geological timescale) precedent for a major tsunami occurring in that region of Japan of which the designers and builders of the Fukushima facility should have been aware. The 1896 8.5-magnitude Sanriku earthquake, located a bit northeast of the 2011 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake, generated a 38.2-meter-high tsunami wave that caused 22,000 deaths. This tsunami was only 1 meter lower than that from the 2011 quake.

The Japanese geophysical community obviously knew of this event and must have been consulted during the design phase. Construction of the facility was completed in 1982. In 2001 Japanese geophysicists proposed a possible mechanism of how the 1896 earthquake might have generated such a massive tsunami wave (Geophys. Res. Lett., DOI: 10.1029/2001gl013149). Thus, the operators of the facility should have had another heads-up about the possibility of another major tsunami and had plenty of time to make necessary modifications to the seawall.

Nothing was done, so the 5.8-meter-high seawall protecting the facility was clearly inadequate to contain the 14-meter-high wave that inundated it. This neglect of prudent engineering design will result in total costs, including cleanup, compensation, and decommissioning, of more than $100 billion.

Karl Kopecky
Edmonton, Alberta


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