Sunday, March 13, 2011

Another Setback for Nuclear Power in the United States

The tragedy in Japan is yet another nail in nuclear energy’s coffin in the United States.


A hydrogen explosion at a second plant is alarming. A “partial” or “total meltdown” are not the words the American public wants to hear. Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts is already calling for President Obama to impose a moratorium on nuclear energy.

Nuclear is not “green” but it is the cleanest of fuels. It is not dependent on weather, international turmoil, or supply problems. Nor does it pollute.

Its reliability and safety record is as good as any other fuel, but, alas, when safety issues arise, the potential risk is great.

The Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979 essentially halted all new nuclear plants in the United States. TMI was not, in fact, a major health disaster, but the adverse publicity, coupled with the untimely coincidence of the movie, The China Syndrome, destroyed nuclear’s image in the public. It had already become the epitome of NIMBY opposition wherever plants were proposed. 63 proposed, or partially constructed, facilities were cancelled between 1975 and 1980. Some of the opposition were reminescent of the Luddites of a century ago.

Silkwood was another anti-nuclear movie that had a major impact on public perceptions.

Seemingly endless litigation, and continual reassessment of safety factors, led to a sharp escalation of costs, while the time interval between conception and generation of power became ten years. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA) became the primary legal weapon against proposed nuclear power plants, with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals taking a strong stand against nuclear power on safety concerns. Questions of worst case analysis, psychological impacts, waste disposal, and energy conservation were litigated, all leading to delays and cost escalations.
The Russian blunder at Chernobyl, a true disaster, further blackened the image of nuclear power.

Even today, the problem of disposing of the high level nuclear generated by existing plants has not been politically solved with the Obama Administration trying to shut down Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

One of the safety issues in the early 1970’s was how to protect against a core meltdown when an event, such as an earthquake, shut down the primary cooling system. The answer was to build a backup cooling system, an emergency core cooling system (ECCS). What if though, the triggering event which destroyed the primary cooling system also struck the ECCS?

That’s essentially what happened in Japan. The earthquake shut down the primary cooling system and the tsunami flooded out the backup generators.

We are told that American reactors are safer and that it cannot happen here. For example, the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant is on the California Coastline abutting the San Diego-Orange County line. The owner, Southern California Edison, says it is designed to withstand a 7.0 quake and has a 30’ retaining wall as protection against a tsunami.

These design specifications were based on experts saying the maximum possible earthquake would be less than 7.0 and the maximum tsunami would have a height of 25’.

The tragic San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 is widely estimated to be a 7.9. That’s not a reassuring margin of error. The "Big One" on the San Andreas Fault is considered by experts to be overdue.

Let us not focus just on the San Andreas for the two other great faults are the Cascadia in the Pacific Northwest and the New Madrid Fault in the greater Tennessee Valley area. However, all regions of the United States are subject to earthquakes.

President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget includes $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plants. It won’t happen.

The promise of nuclear energy was very different.

President Eisenhower promoted Atoms for Peace and Lewis Strauss, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, was quoted in 1954 as saying nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter.” Nuclear energy was the wave of the future as coal power plants were phased out in our urban centers.

France and Japan jumped aboard the nuclear bandwagon. Nuclear generates 80% of France’s electricity and 30% of Japan’s compared to almost 20% in the United States.

Japan may now join the U.S. in its skepticism to nuclear power.

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