The Nuclear Option

With Japan at risk, the nuclear energy debate returns.

Japan’s nuclear power plants were supposed to be safe. Theoretically, one safety mechanism after the other would prevent damage to the plants in the event of an earthquake. But on March 11th, that theory was disproved when a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami washed away backup generators that were designed to keep nuclear reactors cool in the event of a power outage.

Now, frantic efforts to cool the nuclear cores might not be enough. Four of the six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant have faced crises, and toxic radiation is threatening citizens that have already been through the trauma of losing loved ones and seeing their cities flattened to the ground.

For decades, America and other nations have held up Japan as a model of safe nuclear power. President Obama continues to assert that nuclear power is an essential part of a ‘clean energy economy’, and has called for over $50 billion in federal loan guarantees to build new nuclear power plants around the country.

There’s no doubt that we need viable alternatives to fossil fuels, and we need them as soon as possible. But in light of the disaster, we’ve got to ask ourselves: is nuclear power really the answer? What about ongoing environmental effects?

We like to think that major disasters simply won’t happen – and so do nuclear safety regulators and advisers. David Okrent, who advised the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on reactor safety for 20 years, told Bloomberg that reactors are only designed for events that are highly probable, not for anything remotely approaching worst-case-scenario.

“It’s hard to quantify a rare event. When you get to rare events, the design is usually up-to-but-not-including.”

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan was certainly a rare event. Japan’s nuclear reactors were designed to withstand up to a 7.2. The designers of the Fukushima Daiichi plant even built a 25-foot tsunami wall between the ocean and the reactors – but the 30-foot wave triggered by the earthquake plowed right through it.

Proponents of nuclear power plants, even those built on major fault lines, are willing to accept the risk of such an event. After all, Mother Nature is unpredictable, and we can’t control when a natural disaster might strike or how powerful it will be. But it’s all too easy to be lulled into a false sense of security as decades pass in between major disasters.

California, which sits on the San Andreas and Hosgri faults as well as the Hayward-Rodgers Creek Fault, has a 99% chance of getting hit by a 6.7 or greater earthquake in the next 30 years. It’s also home to two coastal nuclear power plants, the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Clemente. Diablo Canyon officials believe that their tsunami walls are ‘robust’, but Japanese authorities said the same thing about Fukushima.

And what most Americans don’t realize is that when it comes to potential for catastrophic damage from an earthquake-induced nuclear meltdown at a power plant, California is pretty low on the list. The highest risk is in places you wouldn’t expect.

The reactor with the highest earthquake risk rating is actually the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York, just 24 miles north of New York City. Other high-risk locations are found in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Florida. Why would these locations be more prone to core damage from an earthquake, when they’re in areas with far less seismic activity? Mostly because plant designers consider earthquakes to be such a low risk here, they lowered their safety standards for the structures.

Nuclear power is often held up as a ‘clean’ source of energy, and when we’re talking emissions – especially compared to those released by coal-fired power plants – that’s true enough. But what do we do with the radioactive waste? Right now, without a central permanent repository, nuclear waste is stored near the facilities where it’s generated. A plan to turn Nevada’s Yucca Mountain into the nation’s dedicated disposal site was overturned by President Obama when Nevadans protested their backyard being turned into a radioactive wasteland – and can we blame them?

Part of the problem currently unfolding in Japan has to do with spent nuclear fuel rods, which are stored in pools of cooling water to contain high levels of radioactivity. Unlike the fuel rods used in the reactor vessel, spent fuel rods aren’t protected by a steel-and-concrete containment vessel designed to prevent leaks of radiation. Once water evaporates from the pool, the rods overheat and release radioactivity directly into the atmosphere. Clearly, this isn’t a great way to deal with the problem.

Accidental release of radioactivity isn’t unheard of even in the best of circumstances. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a disturbing report detailing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inconsistent oversight of radioactive releases from nuclear power plants. UCS reports on over 400 accidental leaks, many of which remained undetected for years. These leaks have resulted in radioactivity contaminating the soil and nearby waterways.

Even beyond the issue of radioactivity, reliance on nuclear power introduces the need to mine a finite resource: uranium. Mines have already cropped up in places like the edge of the Grand Canyon, and more will be needed if the number of nuclear power plants in the U.S. increases as planned. Furthermore, uranium mining is an incredibly water-intensive process.

The fact of the matter is, nuclear power is risky, harmful to the environment, and expensive. Why should we accept this technology as a cleaner replacement for coal-fired plants when we could be using natural sources of power that are far safer? Large-scale solar and wind power generation projects, not to mention wave power, algae and other biofuels, offer literally endless sources of energy without the danger of wayward radioactivity. They will require a shift in research and development, to be sure. And it’s up to us to do so.

Editor’s note 3.18.11: the opening description of this article has been modified from the original version for tone. We appreciate constructive feedback from our readers.

Image: daveeza

Stephanie Rogers

Stephanie Rogers currently resides in North Carolina where she covers a variety of green topics, from sustainability to food.