Why Nuclear Power Should Not be Part of the Solution to Climate Change
We saw the images of the Fukushima nuclear plant in the days and weeks after the 2011 earthquake. Massive hoses sprayed water from the ocean onto the smoldering power plant in a desperate attempt to keep the reactor core from melting down completely. Hundreds of individuals in radiation suits were sent in for their lifetime maximum of 15 minutes exposure to try to stabilize the situation. Remote control robots were deployed to provide information on areas of the plant that were too radioactive for humans to survive.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government, relying on reports from Tepco, the company that owns and operated the plant, gave the public far-rosier-than-reality reports of what was going on, until the truth was no longer deniable. The situation would not be brought under control anytime soon, the problem continued to be extremely difficult to manage with no clear solution, and radioactive water was draining out into the Pacific ocean at a rate of hundreds of tons a day.
Fukushima has not been very visible in the news in the past couple years, largely because the media does not consider an unchanging situation to be “news,” but here is the latest information. Tepco continues to send in robots to gather data, and the robots continue to fail sooner than anticipated due to the high levels of radiation or due to stalling amid molten debris. Most recently, a planned 10-hour robot mission failed within two hours. Before losing communication, that robot – sent into an area of the plant not previously accessed – transmitted readings of radiation levels exceeding 200 Sieverts/hour, an amount that would kill any human within minutes.
Tepco has built a 100 foot deep “ice wall” to prevent water leakage, at a cost of over $220 million, but the wall has failed to fully prevent the leaks. The power company recently announced that they anticipate having the situation under control in 30-40 years, at a current projected cost to the Japanese government of $189 billion – an estimate that has doubled since three years ago, and which includes the cost of compensating tens of thousands of displaced individuals.
Why can’t Fukushima be wrapped up in a couple months? What makes a nuclear disaster so profoundly and exponentially different from any other kind of disaster?
Nuclear power uses radioactive elements – uranium, plutonium – as fuel. Unlike elements with which we are more familiar, radioactive elements are atomically unstable. They spin off sub-atomic particles small enough to pass through most walls, through human tissue and through cell walls. If those particles happen to knock into some DNA, they can damage that DNA, resulting in the cell either dying or becoming altered in a way that can ultimately result in the development of cancer and other health effects. As with the harmful effects of smoking, these health consequences usually aren’t seen for years or even decades.
When radiation exposure is acute, due to prolonged or high-level exposure, the damage to cells can be so intense that radiation poisoning develops and the person can die in a matter of minutes, hours, days or weeks. Because the human body can only safely withstand a very limited amount of exposure to high levels of radiation, cleanup and containment of a nuclear accident, particularly on the level of Fukushima, is extremely difficult (Chernobyl required hundreds of thousands of people to help with the cleanup, and the area is still toxic).
The “half-life” of most nuclear elements used to produce nuclear power is in the hundreds, thousands, or even billions of years, meaning that the danger of such health consequences only decreases by half in that time period. Because of this, a nuclear accident can instantly render an entire geographic area permanently uninhabitable. Such an accident is never really “over.” Anyone who happens to enter the vast contaminated area – even a hundred years later – may be exposing themselves to levels of radiation nearly as deadly as the day of the accident. Chernobyl was a “lucky” disaster in a way: the radioactive element that was used by that plant was caesium, whose half-life is about 30 years. Many of America’s nuclear plants use uranium, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
Nuclear power plants are generally built next to a body of water – a lake, a river, an ocean – so that they can take advantage of that water to cool the nuclear materials. While practical when things are going as planned, this proximity to water increases the potential for radiation to spread more quickly during a disaster. Imagine dumping a small bottle of food coloring onto your kitchen counter: it remains relatively contained. Now imagine dumping that same bottle of food coloring into a full bathtub. The bathtub water soon takes on the vibrant color of the dye. The same principle applies to radiation. While a lake may still keep the radiation contained to a specific geographic area, a river or an ocean can carry it great distances.
Hundreds of tons of radioactive water have drained from the Fukushima plant into the Pacific Ocean. In the short term, that radiation will be dispersed throughout the Pacific Ocean by the currents, and the radiation levels in all but the immediate area shouldn’t be too harmful, but over time, the area of contamination will expand as the radiation continues to accumulate in the water and drift on the currents.
Proponents of nuclear power – especially public relations people hired by the nuclear industry – often make the claim that nuclear is one of the safest and cleanest forms of energy there is. And from a certain perspective, they are right. Nuclear does not produce greenhouse gases like coal or natural gas. And when everything is going as planned, nuclear is relatively safe. But in the thus-far-thankfully-rare event that something goes wrong, it can go very wrong. One minute, the plant is operating in a relatively clean and contained way, and then the unforeseen happens – an innocent human error, a mentally unstable or disgruntled employee, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, a computer malfunction – and suddenly it is a situation requiring hundreds of thousands of human beings to make the sacrifice of exposing themselves to the maximum lifetime level of radiation in a feeble attempt to stabilize a situation that will remain dangerous for potentially billions of years; residents within a several-mile radius of the plant must immediately and permanently evacuate their homes; property values evaporate; citizens, employees, cleanup personnel and first responders are left with a quantity of radiation in their bodies that may kill them quickly in a very ugly way, or which in most cases will result in increased incidents of cancer, birth defects or other health issues down the road.
In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, government officials repeatedly cited a “failure of imagination” for their inability to foresee the possibility of such attacks. Nuclear proponents similarly display a failure of imagination with their blind faith that a major US nuclear disaster is unlikely. Just because something has not happened does not mean that it cannot happen, and with nuclear, all of the elements exist for the eventual development of multiple ongoing disasters, not only in the US but worldwide. Which one will be the one where we finally decide that the risk is too great and we need to rethink the practicality of nuclear power?
We all know that manmade structures do not last forever. Concrete eventually begins to crumble. Metal eventually begins to rust. Radiation accelerates both of these processes to some degree. At some point, therefore, our existing nuclear power plants will need to be decommissioned (deconstructed and decontaminated). This task will be far easier and less costly if it is done under controlled conditions before the plants have deteriorated to the point of being dangerous or even in a state of crisis.
The good news is that nuclear power is a choice. We can choose to pursue it, as some advocate, as a part of a suite of carbon-free energy options. Or we can approach nuclear power with both eyes open, realizing that our existing plants already pose enough of a long-term risk to our country and will already cost billions to decommission (a cost which the energy companies will almost certainly try to pass off to local and federal government, i.e. you the taxpayer). In seeing nuclear for the massively flawed “solution” that it is, we can choose not to dig ourselves any deeper, and instead pursue energy from truly clean sources like the sun, the wind, and the ocean currents.
– rob rünt
Recent articles on the state of the Fukushima disaster as of early 2017 are linked below. Please note that, perhaps even more so than with most subject matter, one should always employ critical thinking when reading information about nuclear power. The information often comes with an agenda – including as the article above. I have tried to be as factual and objective as possible in the above assessment of nuclear power, but I also freely admit that I have an agenda, which is to see America discontinue its woefully unsafe form of energy and to debunk those who promote nuclear without acknowledging the very real cons. Some “news” on the topic of nuclear power may be from a press release from a nuclear industry group, a PR firm or PR firm’s front group promoting nuclear as “safe and clean” – press releases which are sometimes picked up and regurgitated by a news outlet. Other “news” may be from an anti-nuclear group wishing to present a negatively exaggerated view of nuclear power. Still other “news” may be from mainstream news outlets with little time to truly understand the issue, but who wish to sensationalize their reporting to increase ratings. In rare cases, you can find factual, thoughtful, rational news on the topic from someone legitimately trying to be as truthful and realistic as possible. I’ll leave it to you to decide which category the articles below might fall into: I found credible information and distorted information in all of them.
Dying Robots and Failing Hope: Fukushima Clean-up Falters Six Years After Tsunami
(The Guardian – 3/8/17)
No, Radiation Levels at Fukushima Daiichi are Not Rising
(Safecast – 2/4/17)
After Alarmingly High Radiation Levels Detected, What Are the Facts in Fukushima?
(National Geographic – 2/22/17)
Radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Reactor Is Now at ‘Unimaginable’ Levels
(Fox News – 2/8/17)