Preparing the Ground for Renewal of Nuclear Power

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Nuclear energy - An error or the future?

Then the possibility of releasing radioactive materials to the environment can go up significantly, especially if there is a breach in the containment structure of the reactor. There have been explosions. Apparently these were hydrogen explosions. When water dissociates, it becomes hydrogen and oxygen. Massive amounts of spent nuclear fuel ProPublica are stored [in pools of water] inside that building.

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If they do, we could have massive amounts of radioactive material being dispersed into the environment. That could be the truly worst-case event. Several [reactor] core loads worth of material are packed into these spent fuel pools.

So you have one load [of fuel rods] right now resident in the reactors that could melt down. These reactors are fairly old designs; they go back [forty years]. These [older] boiling water reactors typically store their spent fuel in above-ground pools outside the primary containment structure but inside the secondary containment structure. Japan is probably the most earthquake-prepared nation in the world. But is there anything the Japanese could have done better to prevent this crisis in terms of policies, infrastructure, and plant design?

There are going to be ripple effects throughout the whole Japanese nuclear industry and perhaps the worldwide industry.

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But everyone knew this was an earthquake-prone region. A number of things appear to have gone wrong. There should be backup emergency core cooling. But apparently these steam suppression systems just got saturated, [which] points to a design error.

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Another issue is they should have had an emergency core cooling system that could pump in boron, because boron is a neutron absorber, without going to the drastic step of pumping in seawater laced with boron. A natural disaster has triggered this. The public is going to be very anxious about their long-term health. If there is a significant release of radiation, then conceivably several thousand people could [get] cancer in the next several years to decades.

Preparing the Ground for Renewal of Nuclear Power / Edition 1

Should they be shifting away from nuclear power anyway? The French get almost 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear power.

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Nonetheless, Japan does have plans that will probably change now to ramp up the use of nuclear power from roughly 30 percent today for electricity to maybe 50 percent by mid-century. Japan is very energy insecure. They want to wean their dependency on foreign sources of fossil fuel, and that makes sense.

Then there are monopolies in the Japanese utility industry [that] have a lot of control over both local and national politics. Those utility executives tend to favor the large power projects--big coal, big nuclear, big gas and oil. According to a Japanese study, Japan could potentially provide about two-thirds of their electricity from renewable sources by mid-century. How much damage has this incident inflicted on the industry globally? It is a very low greenhouse gas emission source, and it can provide reliable base-load electricity. There are going to be places in the world where retrofits will have to be made.

What were the prospects for new nuclear power in the United States before this incident, and how much does this change things?

The prospects before the incident were a bit of a crapshoot. The capital costs of nuclear plants are so high that companies are risking several billion dollars per reactor and financial firms have downgraded the credit ratings of utilities that have even expressed interest in nuclear power.