After Fukushima

Twenty-five years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster took place at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, that reactor’s molten core is still leaking. The radiation released there equaled 400 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and radioactive emissions remain high locally. Since Chernobyl, all reactors are built with a containment shell to minimize possible damage. But the destructive power and half-life of radiation have not changed. The world’s second-worst nuclear disaster took place in March, when three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan melted down. There has been no explosion, and the initial release of radiation was a fraction of that at Chernobyl. But the multiple leaks continue to flow into land, air and ocean and will likely do so for decades.

Nuclear energy has been promoted not only as a cost-effective source of power but also as a safer and environmentally cleaner option than fossil fuels. But is it? Proponents tout the industry’s international safety record: Out of 33 nuclear accidents of varying impact since 1952, according to The Guardian, a British newspaper, only the one at Chernobyl in 1986 resulted in mass deaths—31 people died immediately. Yet because cancer and leukemia cells take time to multiply, no one knows how many survivors did or will contract a fatal disease. Projections range from 4,000 to one million disease-related deaths.

Can nuclear power still be described as safe and clean if one factors in the harm to life and planet from reactor meltdowns and hazardous waste? Is nuclear energy “cost effective” if one calculates the full cost, including regular and thorough plant inspections, preventive maintenance, the retirement of outdated reactors and the disposal of radioactive waste? The accident-related costs are now borne mostly by taxpayers, not the nuclear industry. The full costs of nuclear energy are seldom spelled out. That must change. Sound energy policies must be based on accurate cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment.

Fukushima may be a game-changer. Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Japan just scrapped their plans to expand nuclear power. Switzerland and Germany also plan to retire their aged reactors without replacing them, phasing out nuclear power entirely. Instead, Germany will increase conservation and investments in solar and wind power.

After Fukushima, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewed facilities and monitoring procedures at this country’s 66 nuclear power plants. A commission report is expected in August. That information will help policymakers and the public to evaluate the nation’s energy policy, much of which has been stalled in Congress. The public should learn how well many reactors are aging; which plants have a history of safety violations; which are located near major population centers (like the Indian Point power plant, 35 miles from New York City); which are vulnerable to an earthquake, hurricane or combination of natural disasters; and what can be done to enhance the safety of nuclear reactors, especially the 23 that use the same cooling vent design by General Electric that failed at Fukushima. What do the industry and government propose to do? And what would improvements actually cost?

Convening a conference in June to discuss nuclear safety and security, Yukiya Amano, head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, urged countries to conduct a thorough risk assessment of their nuclear operations. He also outlined a plan to separate regulators from the nuclear industry. “National nuclear regulatory bodies must be genuinely independent, adequately funded and staffed by well-trained people,” he said. Two controversial issues were raised: whether U.N. experts should conduct random inspections of all 440 nuclear plants; and whether international safety standards, which now are nonbinding, should be made compulsory.

Even so, radiation poses extreme risks. The consequences of an accident, a natural disaster or sabotage are grave and far-reaching. And as more reactors are built, these risks increase. The old comparison between nuclear energy and fossil fuels is becoming obsolete as renewable energy sources become practical alternatives. Forward-looking nations should reduce their dependence on nuclear power while converting to less risky, renewable alternatives.

Given the urgency of reducing emissions and oil dependency, U.S. presidential candidates should be asked to state in some detail their energy plans. The case for increasing renewable sources is strong. Consider: What are the risks to health, planet and peace of renewable energy, like that powered by the sun and the wind? What are the gains, political and economic, from using safe, available sources? What are the costs of aggressively developing renewable energy now, so that it can replace nuclear power when the last reactor is retired? Any other course of action would be a waste of this year’s disastrous warnings.

TM Lutas
5 years 8 months ago
The highest death toll alternative with regard to power generation is not to have sufficient power. People die from lack of electricity.

Those who push that alternative are careful never to openly say so. Instead they merely "raise questions" about every practical power provision solution and always advocate the ones that are impractical. And if the engineers figure out how to make a previously impractical solution practical, the coalition to put you in the cold and dark simply turns on that now practical solution. For a real world example, see the protests against the "Cape Wind" project in Massachusetts to get a feel how it works. 

The coalition to put you in the cold and dark is winning its battle in the UK. The UK grid manager, Steve Holliday has openly talked about the end of 24 hour electricity availability in the UK on the BBC. The associated death toll is tastefully left to the imagination.

The present US reliance on coal releases radioactivity and poisonous heavy metals (especially mercury) into the air. The long term death toll from that release is no more or less difficult to calculate than the long-term radiation death toll from nuclear accidents. The death tolls of less than 24 hour availability electricity, conventional power generation, and nuclear are the real choices that have to be made. 

There are real things that can improve the safety of nuclear power. Switching over to modular designs will permit us to replace older plants affordably and reasonably quickly. Changing the fuel cycle so that we reuse the waste instead of our current system of "once and out" has no technical difficulties. We're generating 90% of our high level nuclear waste as a conscious policy choice. We chose to have a lower chance of nuclear weapons proliferation and a higher level of waste to dispose. 

What we cannot do is replace base load coal and nuclear power with a similar nameplate rating of renewables. They are too unreliable and you end up with unpredictably being cold and in the dark. The excess funerals of that choice are the responsibility of those who advocate renewables irresponsibly.  
Richard Borowski
5 years 8 months ago
To TMLutas: Well said!
Thomas Farrelly
5 years 8 months ago
Hydro power has worked very well, but the US has pretty well exhausted that source of energy.  Wind and solar power provide about 2% of the nation's power. It does seem that we are unable to increase them quickly.  When will we reach 3%?  And keep in mind that the nation's energy needs are growing, not standing still.  There is no certainty whatsoever that wind and solar will ever provide even half of our energy needs.

The editorial does a good job of pointing out the dangers and costs of nuclear energy.
It does not even try to establish alternative energy as a practical alternative.  There are in fact enormous difficulties and costs in developing alternative energy, and while some progress has been made, it is very, very slow, and there is no convincing evidence that it will ever replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy.  So the question is not whether additional alternative energy sources should be worked on, but what other sources should we continue to use to assure our energy needs.  Nuclear can not be ruled out, nor can natural gas, nor even the dreaded coal which now generates half the electricity used in the US.
Can anyone tell me how many wind and solar "farms" will be required, and where they will be located? 
Melanie Statom
5 years 8 months ago
Anyone weighing in on this issue should first submit themselves to veteran photo journalist Paul Fusco's Chernobyl Legacy, (Magnum in Motion).  Viewing the graphic photos and listening to Fusco's moving narrative regarding the suffering he witnessed and the devastating longterm consequences caused by radiation poisoning was a converting, moment of awakening for me. Further discussion or debate  about increasing " safety measures"though necessary in the short term, sidesteps the main issue.  Decomissioning is a clear moral imperative for the common good of humanity and stewardship of our planet.  Necessity can become the mother of invention of safer alternatives.

" This is what journalists do."

" In the Gospel story of the mustard seed (Mt 13:32-34), the seed grows to have impact far larger than its tiny size suggests. That is what journalists do. They observe life and tell what they see. The word spreads. Sometimes, as a result, the world changes. "
(excerpt from editorial comment: Waiting for Gaga, Jesuit magazine: America 6/20/11)
Thomas Farrelly
5 years 8 months ago
Karen, it is not helpful to include hydropower in a discussion of renewable energy. Few argue against hydropower, though there some environmentalists want to remove dams that interfere with fish runs.  But there is little potential for additional hydropower in the US.  The argument seems to be about wind, solar, and biofuels.  Biofuels are renewable, though emitters of CO2, and up to now the US has not found a way to develop them efficiently.  (Ethanol from corn is a wasteful, polluting, scandal that enriches some farmers and raises the cost of food.)  Experimentation should continue.
Wind and solar produce insignificant amounts of energy.  There is plenty of room for further development of these sources, but there is no evidence that they will ever provide enough to replace oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear.
C Walter Mattingly
5 years 8 months ago
When considering the danger of civilian nuclear power compared to other sources, it is certainly helpful to look at the actual history of the industry in the west.
-The cleanest air and water of any major industrial nation is that of France. Why? It is almost 4/5 nuclear power. For those of us who are concerned about global warming, as well as those of us skeptical about global warming yet desirous of clean air and water, nuclear power has proven itself an important part of the answer.
-How dangerous has nuclear power proven here? The US, since civilian nuclear power was introduced over half a century ago, has had no deaths attributed to nuclear power. According to the director of France's nuclear industry, that record is simply fantastic.
Wind power, on the other hand, has had 41 deaths attributed to it thus far, from failing blades to tower collapses and construction, etc. The total has been higher for solar energy, with solar water panels, their construction, and installation being the main culprit, as roofing is one of the most hazardous jobs in the US.
-Almost all agree that the filthiest power source is coal, a huge contributor to polluition and lung diseases. While many of us are skeptical of projected numbers of fatalities, the lowest estimate of premature deaths from coal pollution I have seen in the US is 10,000 per year.
-While Germany has committed to ridding itself of nuclear power, it has also committed to building 26 new coal fired utility plants in the near future. That may make some happy, but those who wish to improve the quality of air and water as France has have no reason for celebration. They will be closing clean air and water power and replacing it with 26 dirtier plants. We need to distinguish between the propaganda and the reality.
-The worst nuclear accident in the history of the west and the worst tsunami in modern Japan's history is now several months old. The death toll from the tsunami is around 25,000. From the nuclear plant, 1. Since the time of the nuclear plant accident, extrapolating from the US estimates of coal plant deaths, there have probably been over 100 deaths from coal fired plants in Japan.
-This Japanese plant was an ancient design. New plants being constructed in China and elsewhere are far safer, with a water cooling supply which can cool the plant for days without any power whatsoever, should the power fail. Thorium designs being developed simply cannot melt down. Unfortunately, nuclear plant design and the economic benefit of such has been largely ceded to France and other countries who have had wiser policies than the US.

Andrew Di Liddo
5 years 7 months ago
This statement from the end of the editorial is the basis for my comment:

Given the urgency of reducing emissions and oil dependency, U.S. presidential candidates should be asked to state in some detail their energy plans.

This statement by the editors seems quite naive given the current situation with the current President and the current Congress.  It matters little what a candidate's specific plans are because no matter how good those plans might be, they mean absolutely nothing unless said candidate has an amenable Congress to work with for the implementation of those plans.  Thus, this statement cannot reflect political realities in today's Washington D.C.  Not only must the plans be stated in detail but methods of implementing those plans through an obstreperous Congress must also be defined.  Other detailed specifications candidates could provide include what portion of the plans can be implemented without Congressional legislation, e.g. by Executive Order.  Candidates must define for the American people those in the Congress who are preventing progress and the electorate needs to remove the blockaders.

From the current situation it can clearly be seen that any President's hands are tied if his opposition party refuses to work with him on any level.  The Republicans have only one agenda and this is the failure of a presidency.  They have no desire to move the country forward in energy policy.
5 years 7 months ago
I tend to agree with the statements by walter mattingly. Like it or not nuclear power generation is the only way forward for our society. It will provide the necessary power for our cities. Renewable energy production is entirely too expensive and canot fill the needs of western society. Coal is the real dangerous to those involved in production and entirely too dirty for our society as a whole. Those who denigrate nuclear power are just whistling in the dark.
5 years 7 months ago

As a practicing nuclear engineer, I found your editorial balanced and accurate in many ways but contains important biases. For example, you state "Sound energy policies must be based on accurate cost-benefit anaylsis and risk assessment". This is most certainly true but it must be true for ALL energy sources, including renewables. Many states in the United States have Renewal Energy Standards, requiring a certain usage of renewable energy (e.g. wind and solar). These are clear subsidies, with costs associated with them. Most renewable energy technologies are not cost effective without such subsidies (hydropower is a notable exception). Certainly cost to the consumer should be a component of any "cost-benefit analysis." In addition, when considering safety, it is important to note that, per MW of electricity supplied to the grid, wind is less safe than nuclear energy in the United States, primarily due to rate of industrial accidents during the manufacturing process.

It is important that America Editors delve into energy policy and ask probing questions. But without providing any analysis what so ever, the Editorials do the readers a disservice by answering the questions they pose.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

This is not a country at ease with itself, if it ever were. The United Kingdom continues to display more and more intolerance and anger.
David StewartFebruary 24, 2017

On St. Patrick’s Day, we celebrate our Irish heritage and our good fortune to be Americans.

George J. MitchellFebruary 24, 2017
“The Catholic Church stands in love with the Jewish community in the current face of anti-Semitism.”
Michael O'LoughlinFebruary 24, 2017
Addressing 90 experts from many countries, Francis said that “all people have a right to safe drinking water.”
Gerard O'ConnellFebruary 24, 2017