Japan’s nuclear crisis shows there’s no foolproof script for damage control

We have no idea if any of the world’s nuclear plants are capable of withstanding unprecedented mega-natural disasters

As scientists and engineers in Japan struggle to prevent full-scale meltdowns in the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors, nuclear-powered nations around the world are scrambling to perform another kind of damage control – to stall the political impact of the crisis and ally public fears of the dangers associated with nuclear energy production.

About 100 of the world’s reactors are already sited in areas of high seismic activity. And what’s happening in Japan makes one thing clear – we have absolutely no idea if any of these plants are actually capable of withstanding unprecedented natural disasters.

Erie BessiePhoto by Roxie HutchisonThe Erie Bessie reactor in Sand Beach, Ohio

As Julian Glover writes in the Guardian : “When experts decide it is necessary to flood reactors in the world’s most technologically advanced nation with an improvised flow of marine muck, people will ask whether the industry’s contingency planning for disaster is really as good as we are always being promised.”

Here in the US, at a White House press conference today, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Gregory Jaczko, gave a vague assurance that the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors were built to withstand “earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunamis.” He, however, didn’t give any details about the magnitude of natural disaster the reactors could withstand.

President Barack Obama has reaffirmed his support for nuclear power, which he believes is an essential part the country’s energy portfolio. But it doesn’t help to learn that 23 US reactors are identical models of the two reactors that exploded in Japan. Twelve others are newer versions of the same model. And by the way, the “newest” reactor is 33 years old. It was built in 1978.

And apparently, these reactors don’t have adequate power backup to see them through a similar crisis. David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says, “most US reactors are designed to cope with power outages lasting only four hours.” The Japanese plants, on the other hand, had batteries that lasted eight hours.

One might argue that chances of US reactors being hit by an earthquake + tsunami double whammy are unlikely. But UCS scientists say they can be visited by other natural calamities like, hurricanes and tornadoes that could be potentially as disastrous. Dozens of nuclear reactors in the country have been operating in violation of federal fire protection regulations and don’t seem interested in addressing these safety risks, they said.

Meanwhile, several European nations have been taking more stringent action.

Switzerland today suspended plans to build new nuclear plants and replace existing ones. The country’s five nuclear reactors produce 40 percent of its energy. The Swiss government now wants fresh safety measures that would safeguard against seismic activity and cooling systems.

German chancellor Angela Merkel has announced the temporary closure of two of its oldest nuclear power plants and suspended plans to extend the life of all of the country’s remaining plants. Germany, where nuclear power has been rather unpopular, had been planning to extend the life the country’s 17 atomic power plants 12 years beyond their original retirement date but had to bow down to public pressure following a weekend of demonstrations against such extensions.

In Austria, environment minister Nikolaus Berlakovich is demanding stress tests to see Europe’s 143 nuclear plants can withstand earthquakes and France, the world’s largest producer of nuclear power said the country “would draw any useful lessons” from events in Japan.

Not surprisingly, China, India and Russia, don’t intend to slow down their nuclear proliferation plans. China, which has seen some of the world’s worst earthquakes (about 87,000 people died in a 7.9 magnitude quake in Sichuan province in 2008), plans to go ahead with its nuclear goals (27 more reactors in five years), reports Bloomberg. Russia has ambitious plans to build 40 new reactors by 2030. Nuclear power makes up 16 percent of Russia’s energy supply. Putin wants to raise that to 25 percent. Same deal with India, which plans to spend $175 billion by 2030 on nuclear power. But in the strangest official statement I’ve come across so far, an official at the Indian Department of Atomic Energy claimed what had happened in the Fukushima plant was not a “nuclear accident”. I can’t resist quoting it in full:

There is no nuclear accident or incident in the Japan’s Fukushima plants. It is a well planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake,” said S K Jain, the Chairman and Managing Director of Nuclear Power Corporation.

What was that again?

Bottomline – few nuclear-enabled nations want to write off nuclear power yet. It doesn’t seem to matter that there’s mounting evidence that alternative energy costs have been declining while the costs of nuclear power have been rising over the past nine years.

And here’s something else I learned today: Just three days before the Japan quake, John Rowe, the head honcho of Exelon Corp (which operates the largest number of nuclear power plants in the US), had said he wouldn’t be investing in more nuclear plants because they cannot compete with natural gas at current prices. Go figure!

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