For the second time in under a year, a large-scale energy disaster is unfolding before our eyes. Two different industries. Two different crises. Can we apply any lessons from the Gulf oil spill, and what can we expect for the nuclear industry moving forward?
It was just over a year ago that the Macondo well erupted in a ball of flames in the Gulf of Mexico. For many of us, this disaster was a poignant reminder of the tradeoffs we make every day for energy resources. Oil production is a dirty industry that has been artfully hidden away halfway around the world along the coastlines of Nigeria or deserts of the Middle East. For decades, Americans have been largely disconnected from the consequences of oil production until a blowout preventer failed to prevent a blowout and sent millions of gallons of petroleum into the ocean and onto our shores.
Fast forward to March 2011 and it seems to be an eerie repeat of recent history where explosions rock a major energy facility and safety and backup systems fail to contain a disaster while we watch as the events unfold over the Internet and Twitter. As of 5 P.M. Tuesday (Texas time), a small team of Japanese technicians is wrestling the nuclear plant back under control. Details are still scarce and the situation is still developing. It really is too early to tell how long the plants will out of control.
What did we learn from the Gulf oil spill? Many assumed (or at least hoped) that the Gulf oil spill would mark a turning point for America's love affair with fossil fuels, and begin a shift to less environmentally intensive fuel sources. We learned that the Gulf oil spill was a result of corporate negligence, a breakdown in safety protocols, and a lax regulatory structure. To fix the regulatory side of things, the Mineral Mines Service was broken into two pieces to avoid conflicts of interest: one entity now grants licenses while the other imposes and enforces regulations. The Mineral Mines Service is now the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
The Obama administration quickly reversed its pre-spill decision to open offshore tracts of land to oil and gas exploration. The land, off the eastern seaboard of the United States and along the northern coast of Alaska, it was decided, was not worth risking to another Gulf-like spill. A moratorium on deepwater drilling was also instated in the Gulf of Mexico, to the protest of the oil and gas industry who felt that they were being unfairly punished for one bad actor's mistakes. The drilling ban was lifted in October. The administration balanced its policies between energy security, an environmental catastrophe, and lukewarm economy on top of a delicate political landscape. The long term effects remain to be seen.
It is too early to understand the full extent and causes of the Japanese nuclear crisis. What we do know is that the disaster was caused by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami, unlike the man-made disaster in the Gulf (and for that matter, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island). An earthquake of this magnitude hasn't occurred on the Japanese plate boundary in over 1,200 years. When the tsunami hit, electricity used to run the coolant (water) pumps and other equipment in the power plant was lost and backup systems within the plant failed to pick up the slack. What happened to the built-in redundancy of backup power sources and coolant pumps? There are other unknowns, too, like why did hydrogen build up within the containment vessel? The containment vessel is typically filled with an inert gas to prevent an explosion from happening.
These questions and more will need to be answered to understand the future risk of nuclear plants in earthquake zones. In the short term, expect increased scrutiny on the nation's existing 100 or so nuclear reactors, some of which are located in seismically active areas. Increased scrutiny is a good thing, as is intelligent debate and robust discussion about the tradeoffs of nuclear energy (and other energy sources as well).
As for the longer term picture, there may be changes to the government's nuclear loan guarantee program. At the state and local level there will probably be more wind in the sails of anti-nuclear lobbies looking to block expansions of nuclear projects, or new projects altogether. One project to watch is the proposed expansion to NRG's South Texas Project Wednesday. If the appetite for nuclear energy cools, how will this affect the calculus of a nation in search of low-carbon energy sources?
Just as the Gulf oil spill didn't kick us off of petroleum, we can say with a high degree of certainty that nuclear energy will be around for decades in the United States and in other countries. Nuclear energy provides the world with roughly 6 percent of its energy and will become even more important as the world looks to decarbonize. The nuclear industry learned valuable lessons from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and has had an impressive safety record (even more impressive if you count the man-hours operating nuclear-powered submarines). There is no reason to believe the industry won't make changes to safety procedures and design specifications to anticipate and prepare for Fukushima-style catastrophes.
In the meantime, our heartfelt wishes go out to our friends in Japan.
About The Author: David Wogan is a dual-degree graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin in Mechanical Engineering and Public Affairs. David's work includes the integration of engineering, biological, and policy disciplines to assess advanced energy production in Texas. David received his BS in Mechanical Engineering from U.T. Austin in December 2006. David has worked at National Instruments and at the White House Council on Environmental Quality on the Energy & Climate Change Team. David is a currently a graduate researcher with the Webber Energy Group and writes at The Daily Wogan, his energy and sustainability blog.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.