The Nuclear Option

The Nuclear Option

Alexis ChapmanFriday,2 September 2016

It’s been almost five and a half years since the Fukushima reactor melted down and the disaster is still not fully contained. Tens of thousands of gallons of ground water flows into the plant each day and becomes radioactive. The latest attempt to prevent the radioactive water from flowing into the Pacific involves underground ice walls and may not work. And if they do work they may be just as vulnerable to a natural disaster as the plant itself was.

The Fukushima meltdown occurred because of a failure to anticipate the scale and inevitability of natural disasters. It was well known that the location of Fukushima, and all Japan’s other nuclear power plants, were prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, because all of Japan is prone to earthquakes and because any coast that is adjacent to an area affected by earthquakes is prone to tsunamis. But the quake and subsequent waves that struck Japan in March of 2011 were the largest in recorded history and any safety measures taken were not enough to keep the plant from melting down as a result of these natural phenomenon. Unfortunately, even after the lessons of Fukushima it’s still not clear if nuclear power plants around the world are prepared for the size and type of natural disasters that we know, or at least we should know, that they’ll have to withstand in the future.

In the U.S. right now a tropical storm is headed towards Florida and the Turkey Point nuclear power plant. Workers at the plant have been preparing for the hurricane season and have taken steps to ensure that the cooling towers remain powered even if the storm knocks out electricity. However, even without any adverse weather or other disaster the plant was leaking small amounts of radioactive water into nearby Biscayne Bay as recently as March. So it’s a little hard to have confidence that the safety measures at the plant are up to the task if, or rather when it’s hit by a big storm or a hurricane some time in the future. North Carolina is also in for some bad weather this week and also has a nuclear plant right on the coast in the path of the storm. And even if our nuclear power plants withstand regular storms like these or other natural disasters like quakes and tsunamis, there is no guarantee they’ll be able to safely deal with the coming effects of climate change like bigger badder hurricanes and storms, higher sea levels, and even impacts to ground water.

It may seem like the answer is to just say no to nuclear power all together, and there are some obvious pros to this approach. As devastating as the recent earthquake in Italy was, one things that they did not have to deal with was a nuclear power plant melting down, or even the possibility of one melting down because they don’t have any. Italy had four plants in the past but closed them all in response to the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. And in 2011, just months after Fukushima, Italian voters killed a referendum that would have had the country getting 25% of it’s power from nuclear energy by 2030.

Unfortunately, a zero tolerance policy towards nuclear power can have unintended negative consequences as well. Italians import nuclear power from neighboring France and still pay more for electricity than the EU average, and quite a bit more than their nuclear power producing neighbors. And Japan is an even more drastic example of what happens when a country gives up nuclear power abruptly. After Fukushima, Japan took all nuclear power plants off line to assess their safety, and the country went from getting 30% of it’s power from nuclear to zero percent. The price of electricity skyrocketed and has remained high, even after some plants were put back on line last year. In addition to the financial cost there was an environmental one. To make up for the lost nuclear power, Japan has been burning more imported fossil fuels, leading to huge increase in carbon emissions. If the U.S. were to close all our dozens of nuclear power plants the increase in carbon emissions would be even greater.

This is at the heart of the dilemma about nuclear power; it may be one of our best options for combating climate change but it’s unclear if we can make nuclear power that is safe from the types of natural disasters caused by climate change. Obviously it would be great if we could just cut our electricity usage and switch to renewable energy and not have to worry about fossil fuels or nuclear, and that should be the goal for as soon as possible. But that’s not what’s happening. Around the world, power consumption is increasing and the switch to renewable is a painstakingly slow process for a variety of reasons. For now, nuclear is still cheaper than most renewable energy technologies (partly because it’s already part of the infrastructure in a lot of countries) and nuclear is much much cleaner than fossil fuels. So we need to continue to examine this issue. We need to be more realistic about the kinds of natural disasters that are going to hit us in future and determine if there is any way to make nuclear plants that can withstand those types of events, and we need to decide if and when the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks.

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