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Averting a “Japan syndrome”: Reactor expert says Japan’s woes shouldn’t stop a nuclear renaissance

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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apan's Fukushima plant Less than a year ago I was opposed to nuclear energy for reasons that I explained in this post. Nuclear power, I believed, was just too risky. Then I got an e-mail from Rod Adams, a former U.S. Navy officer who has served on nuclear submarines and now blogs about nuclear power at Atomic Insights. (I highly recommend this site.) After talking to Adams on Bloggingheads.tv I viewed nuclear power much more positively, for reasons that I explained here.

As soon as I started hearing reports about the effects of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami on Japan’s nuclear plants, I wondered how Rod would react to the news. Below are my questions and his responses:

Strictly from a political point of view, do you think that what’s happening in Japan will make people more fearful of nuclear power?

If nuclear energy supporters work intelligently, the events should help people better understand the incredible safety systems that protect them from radioactive harm. I predict that there will not be significant injuries to the general public from the nuclear plant issues that are now facing Japan, even though the plants were located in the vicinity of the fifth-worst earthquake in recorded history and even though that earthquake was accompanied by a tsunami of epic proportions. The aftermath should also help us expose the technical ignorance of some of the people who oppose nuclear energy and have already made some really silly comments that they will not be able to deny. This is, after all, the age where yesterday’s newspapers do not become fish wrappers.

Will this event make it even harder to expand nuclear power in the U.S.?

It shouldn’t. In fact, it might help. The reason requires a bit of complex market understanding. Because of the great care that will be taken to inspect the reactors that were shaken during the earthquake, I expect that they will remain shut down for several years. That prediction is based on the recovery timeline at the Kashiwazaki–Kariwa station after the June 2007 earthquake. If there are a half dozen or more reactors shut down for several years in Japan, the worldwide demand for natural gas and fuel oil will increase enough to raise prices. One of the biggest threats facing the nuclear renaissance is an extended period of abnormally low natural gas prices. I have recently advanced the theory that the currently low prices are the result of a purposeful price war by some deep pockets, well-established energy supply competitors who are using an age-old technique to protect their market from incursion by a better technology.

Does what happened in Japan make you reconsider your own view of the safety of nuclear power?

No.

What lessons, if any, do you think should be drawn from what has happened in Japan?

Most of the lessons have already been learned and incorporated into the Generation III reactors that have a greater ability to get rid of decay heat—even in the case where they lose all electrical power to their cooling water supplies.

Would small, distributed reactors be more resistant to the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters?

That is possible. The U.S. Navy performed an accidental experiment a few years back that demonstrates just how tough you can make a small reactor if you really try. The [submarine] USS San Francisco ran into an underwater sea mountain while at high speed. The reactor was not damaged.

Wouldn’t they be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks?

Reactors are very tough targets. Most terrorist attacks seemed to be aimed at undefended public areas like shopping districts or at vulnerable, difficult-to-protect facilities like gas pipelines. I am not sure why people think that nuclear plants are such tempting targets. Not surprisingly, groups that often can trace their money flow to oil-producing countries have talked or written about attacking nuclear facilities, but they have not actually tried to do so.

Postscript 3/16/2011: Bloggingheads.tv has posted this March 15 conversation between Rod Adams and John Horgan.

 

Photo: Japan’s Fukushima plant courtesy Wiki Commons





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  1. 1. vootie 11:20 am 03/15/2011

    So your conversion to the wonders of nuclear energy come as a result of one email coming from one person working on a sub? This makes you somehow grounded to tell us ANYTHING about how wonderful nuclear energy is? I don’t think so. The fact that you don’t even mention that there is no known way to dispose of the mounting nuclear waste from the world’s reactors demonstrates your bias. You should be ashamed of yourself for so eagerly lining up to shill for this industry.

    Link to this
  2. 2. What Me? 12:43 pm 03/15/2011

    I can see your excellent observational skills are one of the factors which allowed you to come to your carefully argued position. Try reading it again, in particular the point after the brackets in the first paragraph.

    Regarding disposal, while the hot stuff is very dangerous to get near, the quantities are actually pretty small and the actual threat from it is a lot less than the immediate threat presented by carbon fuels.

    Link to this
  3. 3. vootie 12:51 pm 03/15/2011

    Ah, yes, how could I have overlooked your subsequent conversation with this "expert" on that obscure site. That changes everything.

    Sorry, but bringing "carbon fuels" into this doesn’t change anything — you and your friends have no idea what to do with the mounting pile of nuclear waste, short of dumping it in far away places and hoping nobody notices. Please prove me wrong.

    Link to this
  4. 4. vootie 1:03 pm 03/15/2011

    People reading this might also be interested to know that Rod Adams, the "expert" quoted here, describes himself as an "atomic activist" on his site and heads up Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. Thus, his comments should be taken with more than a grain salt.

    Link to this
  5. 5. HazenMire 2:29 pm 03/15/2011

    This is another great blog post about why we probably don’t need to worry about nuclear dangers coming from Japan.
    http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

    Link to this
  6. 6. jvsciguy 2:34 pm 03/15/2011

    Just a note here; There is some movement underway to reuse the spent fuel.  I have been hoping for this for some time now. While it doesn’t completely eliminate the problem of waste it may be able to help us generate revenues that will allow the waste to be managed safely. We should also pay attention to the note that we are at Third Generation plants which eliminate much of issues that caused the Daiishi disaster. Most of life is an experiment.  We need to stop burning fossil fuels.  Coal kills 48,000+ people per year.  That is more than one Daiishi every year instead of every one hundred years. I don’t favor nuclear over solar but we cannot build out solar fast enough and need to use nuclear to move us ahead by about 20 years.

    Link to this
  7. 7. HazenMire 2:35 pm 03/15/2011

    Proving you wrong :D
    Have a nice day http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2007/12/recycling-nuclear-fuel-the-french-do-it-why-cant-oui

    Link to this
  8. 8. Bionate 2:44 pm 03/15/2011

    I would like to say that I am not a huge fan of nuclear energy largely because of disposal of waste products. However, if our society is going to legitimately addressed its long-term energy needs we need to keep our options open and nuclear energy may be part of that solution.

    As I have learned more about nuclear power and use of civil atomic energy programs I am forced to come to the conclusion that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the costs. The simple truth is even in zones with large-scale radiation contamination such as Chernobyl wildlife is flourishing. The same cannot be said of other ecosystems which have been affected by the burning of fossil fuels. Furthermore, deaths from radiation poisoning and cancer on the whole have been relatively low. Again the same cannot be said of fossil fuel particulates.

    I do agree that waste disposal remains a problem, but let us not forget where uranium comes from. Digging a big hole in the middle of the desert and putting up a big sign may seem crude but not necessarily not effective. And please don’t forget we also don’t have an effective plan to deal with the waste from fossil fuel. Just because you burned it and it became a gas does not mean it went away.

    I am not trying to be nuclear advocate I simply think we need to be rational and consider every option dispassionately which also include geothermal, solar, wind turbines, and biofuels.

    The fate of every civilization has rested on their ability to deploy energy effectively the Romans had roads, the Spaniard’s had sail, the British used coal and the United States has used oil. But what’s next and will we be at the forefront?

    Link to this
  9. 9. vootie 2:47 pm 03/15/2011

    Sorry, Hazey, as it happens I live in France and am very well informed about the debacles of the French nuclear industry. They are in complete disarray regarding waste disposal. And regarding the other site you linked to, it has already been proven to be bogus — so you have a nice day, too.

    Link to this
  10. 10. vootie 2:49 pm 03/15/2011

    "I do agree that waste disposal remains a problem, but let us not forget where uranium comes from. "

    Yes, where exactly DOES it come from? Please check that out and when you realize the damage uranium mining causes, you may want to rethink your support for it.

    Link to this
  11. 11. jvsciguy 2:56 pm 03/15/2011

    What is bogus about MIT?
    http://web.mit.edu/nse/
    http://mitnse.com/ (MIT NSE BLOG)

    The other link was to an older blog about the French recycling program. What is wrong with that?

    Link to this
  12. 12. jvsciguy 2:59 pm 03/15/2011

    Abd remember that nealy all risk analysis favorsnuclear over coal for overall risk.

    Link to this
  13. 13. jvsciguy 3:01 pm 03/15/2011

    Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste
    By burning away all the pesky carbon and other impurities, coal power plants produce heaps of radiation

    Scientific American
    By Mara Hvistendahl | December 13, 2007 | 99

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste

    Link to this
  14. 14. jvsciguy 3:03 pm 03/15/2011

    Per/Kwh comparison

    Total Production COsts (direct)
    http://nuclearfissionary.com/2010/04/02/comparing-energy-costs-of-nuclear-coal-gas-wind-and-solar/

    Link to this
  15. 15. jvsciguy 3:07 pm 03/15/2011

    Stanford Study sees water, wind and sun as most cost effective in the long run. We just need to buy some time to get there.

    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/january7/power-010709.html

    Link to this
  16. 16. vootie 3:32 pm 03/15/2011

    He was pointing to: http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

    Link to this
  17. 17. vootie 3:34 pm 03/15/2011

    "We just need to buy some time to get there."

    The nuclear industry’s favorite talking point.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Extremophile 4:20 pm 03/15/2011

    Germany has today decided to close down 7 of its 17 nuclear power plants, at least preliminarily.

    France, smaller than Germany, has 58 plants, and their President Nicolas Sarkosy said that switching off some of them is "out of the question".

    Nuclear energy has a religious prestige in France. I would not consider religious believes to be am acceptable topic in SciAm.

    PS: The cause of the disaster in Japan was the flooding following the tsunami. I wonder what places in the world can be regarded 100% safe from floodings?

    Link to this
  19. 19. crimue 4:35 pm 03/15/2011

    Even though the problems in (Fukushima, Onagawa, Tokai…) Japan are ongoing, this disaster has already proven one thing: calculating nuclear-power-related risks exceeds real human capabilities.

    It may be the sheer complexity of the task, or mainly the inherent corruption of the process due to economic and political expectations. In any case, wishful science has crippled Japan for the foreseeable future by wiping out quite a bit of its electricity generation, with a considerable human toll sure to follow.

    (While other technologies lend themselves to speedy repair and rebuilding, NP does not, due to the radiation and subsequent risks and dangers.)

    Basing future plans on obvious imponderables does not seem sane, especially given the alternatives. While the cost comparison between renewables and nuclear has too many flavors to satisfy, they certainly are within reach, both financially and time-wise.

    Link to this
  20. 20. tycho brahe 6:13 pm 03/15/2011

    Well, here’s another fellow who never met a neutron he did not like. it would appear that most nuclear power plants are like pyramids standing on their apices. Just the slightest stress and there is no telling what is going to happen. Whatever does happen is only appealing to those who think a little bit of ionizing radiation brightens the day The only really safe nuclear power plant is the nuclear power plant that is never built. If the politicians insist on new construction we should insist that all such facilities be built within the beltway that surrounds Washington, D.C.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Bett 6:39 pm 03/15/2011

    There are already reports of widespread nuclear release from the Japanese power plants. :-(

    According to Medscape: "March 15, 2011 — A third explosion at the Japanese nuclear plant damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, as well as a fire at another reactor, has resulted in fresh release of radiation that is now considered to be harmful and has increased fears over a catastrophic meltdown.

    Radiation levels around the Fukushima Daiichi plant rose to 8 times the legal limit, according to the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) as reported by BBC News. After the third explosion (on Tuesday morning in Japan), the radiation reading rose to 8217 microsieverts an hour, having stood at 1941 just an hour earlier. The annual legal limit is 1000 microsieverts."

    There are going to be people who will continue to try to argue for more nuclear reactors to be built, but I don’t think they’re going to carry the day.

    There is a lot of money at stake, anything is possible, but let us hope that from this disaster comes a little caution and not much more radiation.

    Link to this
  22. 22. electric38 11:22 pm 03/15/2011

    Japan will likely have their own answer to this nuclear issue in their rebuilding program and how they go about it. I am sure we’ll see plenty of solar on the new rooftops, as well as the new small businesses and factories. They are likely to take this catastrophe and change it into one of the worlds’s greener areas.
    The new roads will certainly accomodate electric vehicles (solar charged). Let them answer this question theirselves. I’m sure it will hold some surprises on what energy source they prefer. By the way, weren’t some of those those reactors American made?

    Link to this
  23. 23. ennui 4:12 am 03/16/2011

    Is it not strange how people in the nucleaar Industry insisty that their expensive system is the best?
    Gravity Control could be used to generate power at 1 cent per KW. In Canada I have much opposition from the CBC. They try to eliminate my suggestions, as the Nuclear Industry, costing Billions, will hang on for dear life. In Quebec they hate it, as they get their electric power from Newfoundland at 1 cent per KW and sell it to the USA for 10-15 cent.
    Yes, a new invention is first ridiculed and rejected, the attacked and finally declared self-evident.
    I am now in the attack phase.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Extremophile 6:48 am 03/16/2011

    "By the way, weren’t some of those those reactors American made?"

    As far as my information goes, the power plants in Fukushima Daiichi were built by General Electrics.

    So, the two big nuclear disasters in Japan, the bombs in 1945 and the current melt down, were both based on American equipment.

    Link to this
  25. 25. bucketofsquid 9:41 am 03/16/2011

    If you ever want to move beyond the attack phase build a prototype and fly around a major city for a few hours.

    Link to this
  26. 26. jvsciguy 12:28 pm 03/16/2011

    How come no one picked up on this link. It is better support for most anti-nuke position than most of the other unscientific approaches?

    It seems to me that both extremes in this debate are choosing more emotion than logic. This is why our elected representatives spin out of control. They seem to have come to teh conclusion that only emotion can win.

    Yes. It is true that the indistry will defend its income. And it is true that most anti-nuke people will use almoat any argument to shut down the debate. Both side are not very helpful.

    We currently have over 1000 reactors in use. There are many more being built or being planned. We need to know what the real risks are. If we cannot address this issue we are in danger of more Daiishi events.

    Shutting down some reactors may seem like a good thing and it may be. It may also be just a good political ploy to stave of public fears.

    To save further wasted resources I prefer to learn more before acting rashly.

    Link to this
  27. 27. jvsciguy 12:39 pm 03/16/2011

    Right – the argument that the Japanese are somehow so good at this and have a model program sort of falls apart because their nuclear program it is just their customized order of an American design built and sold by GE an American company..

    The newest reactors are actually more advanced and safer than most American reactors because of lessons learned including the potential loss of coolant in a complex event.

    I just don’t understand why their and our regulators didn’t require retrofitting of the older plants.

    In America our Congress has also been playing footsie with the nuke industry and has refused to increase regulation over the last 20 years. This is what we should be worried about and not the technology.

    Try thinking about what would happen if our roads had few or no rules. We would be screaming to outlaw cars.

    Our elected representatives are currently working on ways to further remove all regulation of all industries including nuclear. They are also working very hard to shut down any and all environmental regulation. This is the kind of thing that ultimately leads to disasters like Fukushima.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Extremophile 4:12 pm 03/16/2011

    "I just don’t understand why their and our regulators didn’t require retrofitting of the older plants."

    Faits accomplis. You cannot make a safe car from an old Ford Pinto, and the same is true for the old power plants.

    "Our elected representatives are currently working on ways to further remove all regulation of all industries including nuclear."

    The nuclear industry has injected huge amounts of money into the political system. Do you expect them to write that off?

    Or do you expect politicians to pay it back?

    Link to this
  29. 29. cbremser 7:21 pm 03/30/2011

    Here’s something to add some fuel to this fire: a British environmentalist actually says this crisis converted him to a believer in nuclear power! See http://www.npr.org/2011/03/29/134960843/Environmentalist-Monbiot-Supports-Nuclear-Power

    Now, he is a columnist (for the Guardian) and thus a compulsive contrarian, but his argument is interesting and not unfamiliar.

    Link to this

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