Saturday, September 03, 2011

Earthquakes and Nuclear Reactors: The Industry Pushback

The modern world has a problem. Nuclear reactors are only a small part of that problem. The fundamental problem is that we do not have in operation a truly safe and truly sustainable energy system for the type of modern civilization enjoyed by much of the world in the year 2011. Keep in mind that the technology that defines the modern world has only been around since roughly 1920, and that innovations have occurred in nearly every decade since then, so that what we define as the modern world has become increasingly complex and increasingly energy hungry.

I have no longstanding beef with the nuclear industry. In the beginning, it seemed promising, but it seems significant problems keep coming to the attention of the public and cannot be ignored at a time when the world is looking for other sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. Currently, there are over 400 reactors in the world. Before the nuclear disaster in Japan some months ago, it was common to hear discussions about vastly increasing the number of nuclear reactors worldwide. No specific numbers were consistently discussed but one can imagine we were talking about maybe 4,000 nuclear reactors being in operation fifty years from now. The chances of so many reactors being built are far less now than before the Japanese incident.

Advocates of nuclear power tend to be financially tied to their optimism about nuclear energy. If nuclear energy has any chance of succeeding in the long run, it would be helpful if there were informed advocates who did not have a financial stake. In some ways, the most disturbing aspect of nuclear energy is that safer reactors can be built but there is little commitment to do so. Why? Because our civilization is based on the bottom line. And the bottom line can be manipulated by powerful interests. The real cost of fossil fuels is far greater than what we pay at the pump. The cost of nuclear energy is far greater than the monthly bills we pay to a power company. Whenever possible, corporations, partly out of bad habit, partly out of greed, simply put off real costs to future generations.

At is an AP article that is appearing in a number of places. The article discusses nuclear safety in light of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March and the recent earthquake that hit Virginia and was felt by much of the east coast. The article in Forbes notes:
The risk that an earthquake would cause a severe accident at a U.S. nuclear plant is greater than previously thought, 24 times as high in one case, according to an AP analysis of preliminary government data. The nation's nuclear regulator believes a quarter of America's reactors may need modifications to make them safer.

That's 24 times higher than previously thought. Isn't this the way of America's business-as-usual crowd? The business-as-usual crowd always underestimates risks when there's a profit to be made.

Keep in mind that the accident in Japan is just one of the biggest of the past 60 years. Nuclear accidents have many other causes. An earthquake is only one possible cause. Back in March, The Guardian provided a list of 33 nuclear accidents since the early 1950s. These are most of the known incidents, though there have been others. The incident in Japan has since been raised to a Level 7 incident. Now notice the number, 33 accidents. And that is almost certainly an under count. Nevertheless, that's one accident every two years since 1950.

Let's go back to the AP article:
The average risk to U.S. reactors of core damage from a quake remains low, at one accident every 500 years, according to the AP analysis of NRC data.

Nuclear power generators have only been around since 1950. Japan immediately lost 3 reactors to the earthquake and the tsunami that followed. Then 3 more went permanently offline due to the extreme radiation. Yes, the accident was in Japan, but the design came from the U.S. and despite all the second-guessing, Japan is just as safety conscious and technologically adept as we are (meaning, of course, not safety conscious enough).

The NRC and the industry are playing games with the 500 years statistics (the 500 year figure, by the way, is after the NRC seems to have recognized the greater earthquake danger, 24 times more likely. Wow, so a year ago the odds were one in 12,000 years? These clearly are never-neverland statistics). There are times when statistics actually mean something. But this is not one of them. Also keep in mind that a single incident like the one in Japan is a very serious accident, far greater than if a coal power plant toppled to the ground or a few windmills got blown over.

Incidentally, I give Forbes credit for cutting one part of the AP article. In my paper, there was an odd and muddled reference by AP that according to one perspective the risk of an accident from an earthquake to a single reactor was only one in 30,000 years. No doubt, even Forbes likes to maintain its credibility (the editors of my paper simply reprint things without much proofreading or thought, like far too many papers in America). Apologies for the discussing the numbers, but when an accident like the one in Japan occurs, we see why it's important to be skeptical of such rosy industry assessments of nuclear safety. To keep things in perspective, it's important to remember that Virginia experienced only a 5.9 earthquake. Despite the small size, at least one nuclear reactor had things move several inches that shouldn't have moved at all. In the last 250 years, the east coast and the middle of the United States have experienced much bigger earthquakes.

Is nuclear energy dead? For now, probably. Today's reactors will continue producing energy but new projects are pretty much dead. In the long term, it may depend on whether Europe, Japan and the U.S. can commit to major new research in nuclear energy designs that are much safer and are cost effective. Keep in mind, that safer reactors can be built right now but the nuclear industry has shown no inclination to do so. Keep in mind that the fossil fuel industry has a similar problem. There are ways right now for recapturing CO2 and sticking it safely somewhere in the ground. But there is no commitment on any kind of serious scale to do so.

It is entirely possible that the best way forward in the next 50 years is to put fossil fuels and nuclear energy out of business. And the best way to do that is to commit to job-creating green energy and massive amounts of job-creating research for better, cleaner and more sustainable source of energy.

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Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

". . .the most disturbing aspect of nuclear energy is that safer reactors can be built but there is little commitment to do so. Why? Because our civilization is based on the bottom line. And the bottom line can be manipulated by powerful interests."

Exactly right. Industry is masterful at privatizing profits and shifting costs and risks to the public.

N-plants can be sited and built safely enough, but doing so would make power from them uncompetitive. Or, it would take so long for investors to realize acceptable profits from them that they would put their money elsewhere.

What this means is, the only way we can have nuclear power plants that are sited and built at an acceptable level of safety is if they are publicly owned and operated. That would remove the profit imperative. Plants could be designed for a 100-year lifespan instead of 40. Spreading the siting, construction and operating costs over that long a time would probably make their power output competitively priced.

"The business-as-usual crowd always underestimates risks when there's a profit to be made."

True, and all the more reason nuclear plants should be built and operated in the public interest by government. Public health and safety, not profit, should be the paramount concern.

(Craig, your visits and comments are always welcome at Oh!pinion. Long time no see. ;) )

12:51 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

S.W., good to hear from you.

I like the idea of the public owning nuclear reactors that are much safer. Maybe when the current crop of right wing Republicans run their course, something along those lines can be pursued. Right now, if Washington decided that all new reactors should be paid for and run by the government, the Republicans would try to privatize them as soon as they could, and certainly at a nice fat discount.

Actually, in some cases, though not nuclear reactors if we're still to use them, privatization would be okay, but privatization in Republican ears (and frankly business-as-usual Democrats) is just a code word for a government-sponsored get rich scheme.

I think key highways are best handled by the government, either state, federal or both. In Orange County, California, a bunch of Republicans conned a governor into privatizing a section of public land alongside a freeway; pretty much all they had to pay for was the ashphalt and signs. They turned it into a toll road, made fat profits, and then bailed when the economy crashed in 2008, just like any get rich condo scheme with 350% occupancy. For various reasons, the fat cats legally made off with a bunch of cash and the state had to spend money to upgrade the toll road and take down the barriers.

Although few people like to use the U.S. Constitution for such things, it just may require some sort of amendment to permanently put nuclear reactors under public control. The world is changing. I really would not oppose it.

I promise to come around to comment on your site more often. I try to read it at least once or twice a week.

11:22 PM  

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