Sunday, March 27, 2011

Safe Nuclear Power

by Richard Crews
Our worst fears about the dangers of harnessing nuclear power were approached by the disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in April 1986. Millions of people were threatened, tens of thousands of lives may ultimately be lost; millions of animals were slaughtered, millions of square miles were contaminated; the costs of clean up, containment, decontamination, and health care have run so far to hundreds of billions of dollars.

The causes at Chernobyl? Although there may have been some design and construction weaknesses at Chernobyl, the cause was overwhelmingly human operator error.

The only other significant nuclear power plant disaster until the current one at Fukushima, Japan (although there have been several close calls) was the partial core meltdown that evolved during late March and early April of 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. In that case there were no significant health problems, and the financial costs amounting to a few hundred million dollars were manageable by the industry. The principle "fallout" was political--a public perception backlash against nuclear power, particularly in the U.S. This led to untold hundreds of billions of dollars in political, infrastructure, and business expenses and incalculable secondary greenhouse gas emissions that are expected cause climate changes extending over decades (which may be crippling worldwide to human civilization itself).

The causes at Three Mile Island? In the case of Three Mile Island, the principle cause was human error. If human operators had not misunderstood the situation and intervened inappropriately, the automatic systems would have averted the disaster.

Now we are watching another nuclear power disaster evolve in Fukushima, Japan. The enormous 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011 disrupted the main power supply and the ensuing tsunami washed out the back-up emergency generators. This caused a failure of the cooling systems, causing uranium fuel rods to overheat; there were fires, explosions, and leaking of radioactive material into the environment. Although this disaster has passed the Three-Mile-Island level, it is still far short of the Chernobyl level; the ultimate outcome is as yet unknown.

The causes of the problems at Fukushima are also not yet fully known. It is clear there were strategic design flaws such as building nuclear power plants--at all--in an active earthquake area, and burying the back-up generators underground where they were susceptible to damage from a tsunami. If there were also contributing human errors, this is not yet known.

The question arises anew, can nuclear energy be safely harnessed to provide for humanity's electrical power needs? The answer is yes, but not in its current design form. There are potential nuclear power designs--for example, using radioactive thorium as fuel rather than uranium, or using traveling wave technology--that do not risk power-plant disaster. They also significantly curtail both of the other two terrible dangers of the current uranium design: spent fuel disposal and terrorist theft. These two alternative design technologies are being explored in India and China respectively. (They are too "hot potatoes" politically to explore in this country.)

Nuclear power can be safe, but because of the political and sociological issues that have come to surround it, it is problematic whether or not it can contribute to saving humanity from our energy hunger and the climate destruction our profligate use of fossil fuels has precipitated.