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Averting a "Japan syndrome": Reactor expert says Japan's woes shouldn't stop a nuclear renaissance

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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

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

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