As we all know by now, the Fukushima plant’s inability to withstand natural forces has resulted in the poisoning of water and land in the surrounding area and the emission of radiation into the atmosphere that is now detected in parts of the United States. And the reactors are still not under control, the potential damage to humans and other living things still not contained.
While everyone around the world is asking, “Could it happen here?,” our governments (outside of Germany) and the nuclear industry minimize the risks and boast about new technologies.
I’ve only read opponents of nuclear-generated electricity use the expression “It can’t happen here,” always to describe the attitude of proponents. I know of no proponent of nuclear who has used this exact idiomatic expression, at least not since a massive Japanese earthquake began a chain of events that caused an as-yet uncontrollable meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant.
I thought I would share some of the facts I have culled from my reading about the Fukushima incident, the reactions of both opponents and proponents of nuclear-generated electricity, and the comparisons between Fukushima and U.S. nuclear plants presented by both sides:
- Of the 104 nuclear-powered electrical generating plants in the United States, 53 (more than half) have the same basic reactor design as the Fukushima reactors.
- One of the biggest problems at Fukushima is that the fuel rods are not covered by enough water. The uncovered rods spew radioactivity into the environment. And it turns out that on average, the rods are piled twice as high in U.S. nuclear plants than at Fukushima. As anyone with common sense will realize, the higher you pile the rods, the more water you will need to cover them, the more likely there will be insufficient water (all other things being equal) and the greater the potential problem if the rods are uncovered.
- After power failed in the plant, which meant, among other things, that there was no way to pump water to the spent nuclear rods, Fukushima ran out of battery power in about eight hours. Virtually all U.S. nuclear-generated electrical power plants—93 in all—have batteries that last a mere four hours.
These three facts are enough to convince me that the overall the safety and the standards of safe operation at U.S. nuclear-generated power plants are about what they are in Japan. That conclusion in turn begs a few important questions: Could a U.S. plant be hit with a natural disaster like the one that hit Japan—a major earthquake followed by a tsunami? Would it take less than an earthquake-tsunami to do the damage? What other weaknesses in design or operations are there that we won’t know about until something bad happens
My current reading, Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter, makes me raise another very frightening question. The massive amount of evidence that Dikötter presents builds a solid case for the idea that during the Chinese so-called “Great Leap Forward” in 1958-1960, the mores and practices supporting the social and economic system seemed to crumble away in a matter of months because of the crazy policies of the communist party. Standards of safety and maintenance were loosened to the degree that equipment and factories quickly became inoperable and some unreal number of manufactured and finished goods—maybe a third—were so shoddy that they were unusable. New dams and irrigation projects failed everywhere because of shoddy construction. Corruption and falsification of reports was endemic.
What if such a total breakdown occurred in a country that generates electricity using nuclear power? The thought of what could happen is almost too horrific to conjure.