In the weeks since Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has spewed contamination and displaced thousands. It has also rekindled fears across the globe about the risks of nuclear power and at least temporarily slowed the industry’s revival in the United States.
Overnight, U.S. public opinion turned from cautious support to renewed skepticism about the safety and cost of nuclear energy. The skeptics don’t doubt nuclear power’s potential benefits (the industry describes itself as clean, cheap, reliable, and home-grown), but worry about the very small margin for error in handling nuclear materials. Such skepticism will surely increase as the causes, extent, and costs of the Fukushima disaster become clearer. For while nature played a dramatic role in Fukushima’s demise, it is clear that design failures and faulty safety measures were also to blame. The Japanese nuclear-power industry is hardly unique in this. Last year the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found twenty-four instances of equipment failures at U.S. plants, failures that had not been properly reported.
None of this caused President Barack Obama to veer from his commitment to nuclear power in his speech on energy policy at Georgetown University on March 30. The president continues to insist that it makes sense for nuclear energy to play a significant role in meeting the nation’s need for electricity. One wonders what the president thinks of the daily reports from Fukushima: tens of thousands displaced, workers injured, contaminated food, radioactive seas, and reports of highly toxic, long-lived cesium 137 isotopes in seven thousand people twenty-five miles from the plant, at levels nearly double those that impelled the Soviets to create a no man’s land around Chernobyl that still exists.
There remains a two-pronged problem with increasing our reliance on nuclear energy: the immediate and long-term risks, and the staggering costs associated with developing, maintaining, and decommissioning nuclear plants. Of the 104 facilities now operating in the United States (which provide 20 percent of our electricity), 23 are based on the same model as those that failed at Fukushima. Furthermore, a number of U.S. plants are situated either adjacent to seismic faults or near large population centers (the Indian Point facility, thirty miles from Manhattan and within fifty miles of 20 million people, is built on a fault line). Evacuation plans for many of these plants are risible. While it is true that 80 percent of U.S. plants have incorporated new safety features since the Chernobyl meltdown (1986), and other safety measures have followed since 9/11, it is ultimately the “safety culture” and the redundant containment methods at each plant that will make the difference. Fukushima had eight-hour back-up batteries in case of an emergency. That proved inadequate. Yet only 11 of 104 U.S. plants have the same coverage. The other 93 have batteries that last only four hours.
Then there’s the expense and the risk of maintaining and decommissioning nuclear materials. The immediate issue is what to do with the ever-increasing number of spent but highly radioactive fuel rods. This “waste” problem has reached a crisis point. Contrast the roughly 70 tons of spent rods at the Fukushima reactors with the 690 tons housed at Vermont’s Yankee plant alone, or the staggering 1,430 tons at the San Onofre plant, just thirty miles from San Diego. Reactor cooling pools now hold five times more spent rods than they were designed to house. Not including the military’s nuclear waste, there are over 72,000 tons of material we don’t know where to store. No one wants it, either in his back yard or under it. The planned Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada has been scrapped for political and geological reasons. Keeping this material safe for hundreds, indeed thousands, of years will prove an even more toxic legacy for our heirs than the national debt.
Just as there are rational if politically elusive solutions to the debt conundrum, potential solutions exist for meeting our energy needs without having to settle for the Faustian bargain of nuclear power. Over the next forty years we will have to rely on cleaner, safer energy while at the same time finding ways to use less energy per capita. As the Economist noted (March 26), we must also burn less coal. Global warming is a real and crippling danger. It will produce rising seas, prolonged droughts, massive migrations, epidemics, political instability, and wars. The most efficient way to short-circuit the warming is to create an ethic of conservation based on efficiency, nonpolluting renewable energy, and plentiful natural gas. That will require a dramatic change in American habits as well as significant economic restructuring and investment. It’s a daunting challenge, but the only alternative is continued ecological degradation and the risk of more Fukushimas.
April 5, 2011