Thoughts on the whole nuclear power thing

I’ve been pretty distracted these past few days, closely following developments on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. At first, it was mostly an academic curiosity, but as conditions at the plant deteriorated day after day, it’s become more personal. My parents and my brother are in Tokyo, some 140 miles away from the plant, and while that’s far enough that they’re not in any immediate danger, it’s not far enough for me to feel completely comfortable. My brother may be leaving soon, but my mom’s not willing to abandon her hometown quite yet, which is understandable. So I’ve been keeping a close eye on the news, doing my best to understand what’s going on so that I could advise her should risks increase further.

I’m learning that nuclear disasters are fundamentally different to natural disasters. If you survive a natural disaster, you can rebuild. If your home collapses in an earthquake, as long as you survive the quake, you can rebuild. If a fire burns down your house, you can rebuild. If a tsunami washes away your house, you can rebuild. If a tornado or hurricane blows away your house, you can rebuild.

But when I suggested to my mom that she evacuate and she asked me if she’d be able to return, I couldn’t honestly promise her that she would. As unlikely as it is, if fuel in one of those exposed spent fuel pools melt or even goes critical and radioactive Cesium (or worse, Plutonium from one of the MOX fuel rods) is released, and radioactive materials get blown up high enough, and the wind blows just so, it could reach Tokyo. Cesium has a half-life of 30 years, so radiation levels may not decrease appreciably in my mom’s life time. She may never be allowed to go back again. I know it’s highly unlikely. But not impossible.

Before this particular nuclear crisis, if you asked me what I thought about nuclear power plants, I would’ve said that I had some reservations but was more supportive than not. After all, unlike coal and gas powered plants, nuclear power plants don’t release greenhouse gasses, and by reprocessing and recycling spent fuel, it’s possible to significantly reduce nuclear waste down to manageable quantities. While long-term storage of nuclear waste could be a problem, climate change is a more immediate threat, and anything we could do slow its progress seemed like a reasonable idea to me.

After this week, I think I’m going to have to consider myself a skeptic. I think mankind may possess the scientific and technological capability to build safe nuclear power plants. But, possessing the technology and scientific knowledge is one thing. Actually deploying that knowledge is another.

The disaster at Fukushima should not have come as a surprise to those who knew better. The Mark 1 nuclear reactors such as the ones used at Fukushima were known to have vulnerable containment designs that had a 90% chance of failing in the event of a meltdown. The containment design may, however, prove to be the lesser of flaws. The bigger issue at the moment is the spent fuel pools that store large quantities of fuel –enough to potentially reach critical mass– in pools outside the containment structures. Such a design would not be allowed to be built today, but it was allowed to operate in an earthquake- and tsunami-prone area for almost 40 years. That suggests to me that, perhaps, humans aren’t yet ready for nuclear power.

I certainly expect that this disaster, no matter how it turns out, will help mankind make nuclear energy safer. Hopefully, lessons will be learned. Numerous nuclear plants will likely either be shut down, retired earlier, or reinforced. Hopefully similar (or even dissimilar, for that matter) accidents can be prevented in the future.

But humans don’t always learn. The Fukushima nuclear power station went online in 1971. When vulnerabilities in the Mark 1 containment system were pointed out in 1972, nothing was done. When Three Mile Island happened in 1979, nothing was done. When Chernobyl happened in 1986, nothing was done. So it’s difficult to assume, that even after this incident, everything would be done to ensure the safety of nuclear plants everywhere.

So, the fact still remains: the surest way to avoid future nuclear accidents seems to be to stop using nuclear energy entirely. And I hope we do, because there are alternatives. The alternatives may be more expensive, but I’m willing to pay more if it means we’ll never again risk contaminating someone’s hometown with radioactive fallout.

I had to tell my mom that there was a possibility her hometown may become uninhabitable. Trust me. It’s not something you ever want to have to tell someone.