This past March was a great time to invest in gas masks. Or machetes. These, along with iodine tablets, were among the many items Californians rushed to buy in response to the crisis at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant on the northeast coast of Japan following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated parts of the country.
Iodine tablets at least bear some relation to the situation, although probably unnecessarily, given that radioactive iodine quickly decays into harmless byproducts. Why the machetes, though? You can’t split an atom with one. According to the Los Angeles Times, the confluence of a nuclear crisis far away, a fish kill nearby, and the close pass of a “super moon” had some Californians convinced that civilization was about to collapse. And with the citizenry thinking like that, who among us can say that they’re wrong?
The ongoing catastrophe at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima nuclear plant cast a pall of fear worldwide, handing local electoral victories to Germany’s anti-nuclear Green Party, and forcing conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel to speed up the phase-out of that country’s nuclear power. Italy has shelved plans to rekindle its nuclear power projects. China has halted approval of all new nuclear power plants.
In Japan, where highly radioactive elements, including plutonium, have been spewing from the crippled plant into the ocean and surrounding countryside, there are excellent reasons to be scared. Outside Japan, the biggest casualty may be rational policymaking about energy. Key questions such as how to replace nuclear power without causing more environmental damage or what to do with all the nuclear fuel now in play—or already spent and in storage—are receiving scant attention.
In the United States, where nuclear power had regained some of the support that had evaporated in the wake of the 1977 Three Mile Island accident, Fukushima quickly became the Godzilla of the cable news networks. On CNN, anchors pleaded, cajoled, and in the case of commentator Nancy Grace, bullied guests to pump up the fear factor. When AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Bernie Rayno tried to tell Grace that the Fukushima plume posed little threat to the United States, she jumped on him. “Yeah, that’s what the Japanese government said, too,” she sneered. “Everything’s fine!”
True to form, the morning crew at Fox News judged that their audience’s deepest fears lay in something even more terrifying than a purported trans-Pacific cloud of radiation—namely, higher taxes. The Fox & Friends cast instantly adopted a “Can we afford to bail out Japan?” theme, even as horrific images of the stricken nuclear plant and the surrounding devastation wrought by the tsunami played out behind their comfy couch. One sensed that this was the best they could do by way of improvisation while their research team scrounged for a way to blame “Obamacare” for the disaster.
Meantime, nuclear experts struggled to convey an accurate message to the public over the blare of the media circus. In an interview with this writer, Alexander Glaser, a nuclear energy and weapons specialist at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, explained the futility of buying iodine tablets. “There are certain elements that are not present [at Fukushima], or at a much lower concentration, such as iodine.” Moreover, the plume from that site has been feeble compared with the one that erupted from the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986. Even if radioactive iodine gas were to make its way into the jet stream and slip across the Pacific, Glaser explained, with a half-life of just eight days it would pose little threat.
To be sure, the Japanese are facing grave perils, and radioactive hazards may indeed eventually make their way from Fukushima to other parts of the world at levels above the trace amounts detected so far. Plutonium, being highly energetic, is among the deadliest of leaking isotopes, but experts say that because it is extraordinarily massive (plutonium is denser than lead), there is little chance it will develop into a widespread hazard. Of greatest concern are cesium isotopes, whose half-life ranges from thirty years to centuries.
“We have the experience from Cherynobyl. Cesium was the element that caused most of the contamination in Ukraine, Russia, and Europe,” Glaser said. “If the wind shifts [in Japan] we may even see significant radiation levels in Tokyo. You wouldn’t immediately see increased cancer rates, but… to decontaminate Tokyo could be essentially very difficult or impossible.”
Still, there is a major difference between Chernobyl and Fukushima: their plumes. Chernobyl’s reactor core blazed intensely for months under an open sky, driving a column of hot gas and particles into the jet stream. To date, Fukushima’s fires have been transient affairs outside the still-contained cores, so the escaping gas and particulates have remained mostly in the lower atmosphere, where they rapidly diffuse, experts say. Nancy Grace’s imagined “cloud of death” notwithstanding, the cesium threat outside Japan is likeliest to make its way across the Pacific via the food chain: insects, fish, migrating birds, and bovines can all serve as “bioconcentrators” of radioactive hazards, experts say.
Should cesium or other Fukushima isotopes slip through detection nets, no one will ever know who the victims are. In all likelihood they will appear—if at all—as blips in the epidemiology of cancer. It’s worth noting that the Chernobyl disaster (which killed two people on the scene and twenty-eight firefighters and emergency clean-up crew in the following three months from acute radiation sickness) has so far not produced a detectable surge in cancer deaths, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation—although 6,000 excess cases of mostly treatable thyroid cancer have been recorded. The number of eventual cancer deaths that will result from the Chernobyl nuclear accident remains in dispute among various scientific bodies, even within the UN. In an article published in the Guardian last year the number ranged from 4,000 deaths to half a million.
Still, it’s safe to say that some Chernobyl victims have died prematurely, and undoubtedly so will others as a result of Fukushima. That future victims can never be sure whether their cancers originated with a fissile fragment from Fukushima, a cosmic ray, or a spontaneous mutation will hardly be a comfort to themselves or their loved ones. But these concerns, while certainly not trivial, are hardly the only factors at play in the decisions to be made in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Predictably, the pendulum of U.S. public opinion has swung nationwide. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll conducted in late March found that 53 percent of Americans opposed building any more nuclear power plants, up from 47 percent a year before. The NIMBY factor (“not in my backyard”) produces an even stronger reaction, with 60 percent saying they oppose a plant being constructed near where they live.
Some have gone further to argue for a phase-out of the 104 aging nuclear power plants now operating across the United States. As events unfolded in Japan, the progressive blogosphere lit up with calls for no nukes. In a widely circulated piece titled “End Nuclear Power Before It Ends Us,” activist Harvey Wasserman wrote:
The real choice we face is between all fossil and nuclear fuels, which must be done away with, as opposed to a true green mix of clean alternatives. … [Green energy technologies] all have their drawbacks here and there. But as a carefully engineered whole, they promise the balanced Solartopian supply we need to move into a future that can be both prosperous and appropriate to our survival on this planet.
Wasserman may indeed be accused of “Solartopian” dreaming, but he’s far from alone in opposing nuclear power. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group issued a report calling for a moratorium on relicensing America’s existing nuclear plants and a halt to building new ones. “Nuclear power is simply too risky,” said the group’s safe energy advocate Johanna Neumann.
With no end in sight to the Fukushima crisis, such sentiments are understandable. Nuclear power presents a qualitatively different risk from all other forms of electrical generation. As Princeton’s Alexander Glaser drily remarks, “What is unique about nuclear, of course, is the risk of these catastrophic accidents.”
All the same, demands to halt the use of nuclear power generation in the United States tend to overlook key issues. However much we may love the idea wind and solar power, at a few percentage points of consumption, they are tiny contributors to our overall energy needs. Despite rapid growth and falling prices—following the election of President Obama, investment in renewables jumped by more than 50 percent in 2009—few experts believe that their use can be ramped up to replace nuclear in the next few decades.
Nuclear energy currently produces a little more than 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Renewables produce just 8 percent, and more than a third of that is from hydroelectric dams. Wind amounts to less than 2 percent of all electric generation, and solar is a mere blip.
“Pulling back from nuclear would have a very negative impact,” University of Illinois nuclear engineering professor James Stubbins said in an interview. One negative impact would come from filling the energy gap with more coal-fired plants. “As everybody knows, the use of fossil fuels has become very problematic, because of greenhouse gas emissions,” Stubbins said. “Coals also have other issues associated with them.”
Indeed. Burning coal carries well-known risks: acid rain, particulate pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions, to name the main ones. The first has decimated forests in the northern latitudes, while the second hastens the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans annually. The precise numbers are disputed, but even a moderate estimate of 22,000 annual deaths from coal soot dwarfs the most extravagant estimates of the eventual death toll from Chernobyl.
Yet, the threat from coal may be vastly greater than even that. The consequences of ocean acidification and global warming are hard to assess, but these undoubted effects of coal-fired plants certainly contribute to what may prove to be the greatest environmental catastrophe in human history.
Of course, not everyone believes we’re trapped on the horns of a nuke-or-coal dilemma. In 2010 Geoffrey Keith and his associates at Synapse Energy Economics, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consultancy, produced a detailed study of how the United States can transition from both coal and nuclear power to renewable energy. Titled “Beyond Business as Usual,” the report concludes:
By the middle of this century, the United States could replace coal-fired electricity generation with energy efficiency and renewable energy, and we could reduce our use of nuclear power. Near-term costs would be modest, and long-term savings would accrue.
This would be a development welcomed by millions. Note, however, that this sunny prospect lies on the horizon—four decades away. In the meantime, even by Synapse’s projections, the rapid expansion of wind and solar power in the next decade would mean only a slight fall-off in nuclear power, and by 2050 some 70 percent of the nation’s current nuclear power capacity would remain online.
In short, nuclear power will be with most of us for a lifetime. To make the best of it, we will have to face up to critical nuclear policy decisions sooner rather than later. No decision is more critical than what to do with all the waste—past, present, and future—generated by the nuclear power industry.
The world became aware of what a hazard spent nuclear fuel can present when a damaged pool at Fukushima allowed some of it evidently to catch fire and spew radioactive smoke. The total amount of spent fuel stored over Fukushima’s reactors is estimated at just under 650 tons. In U.S. reactors, the total tops 70,000 tons, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
Spent fuel remains so potent that under certain conditions it could detonate like an atomic bomb, says William Martin, chairman of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan. When a pool runs dry, he explains, the fuel may heat up but it won’t go critical, because the neutrons generated by fission escape so quickly they can’t create a chain reaction. But if you then try to cool things down, by say dumping seawater into the pool as the Japanese did, “you have to be aware that recriticality is a possibility,” says Martin. To avoid that possibility, he notes, boric acid (a neutron absorber) can be added to the water.
Even if the possibility of going critical remains remote, spent fuel can kill. As Fukushima has apparently shown, when a fire breaks out in overheated spent fuel it disperses dangerous gas and particles over a wide area. Yet, astonishingly, the United States has no plan for disposing its spent fuel. A long-proposed permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada remains in limbo. It’s not for lack of money—a surcharge on every kilowatt hour of nuclear-generated electricity has built up a fund of some $30 billion to deal with the waste. Rather, it’s the old NIMBY bugaboo. Yucca Mountain happens to be in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Not in my back yard, he’s declared in so many words, and to date the Obama administration has backed him.
Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein expresses dismay over the stalemate: “If you had told any of us who were involved in the closing-the-fuel-cycle discussions in the ’80s that at this point we still wouldn’t have a path forward for our spent fuel, we would have been very surprised,” Klein said in an interview.
Now a vice chancellor of nuclear engineering programs at the University of Texas, Klein advocates the building of nuclear fuel recycling plants. Such a plant, he says, could greatly cut down the amount of long-lasting hazardous waste as well as produce new fuel for power plants.
“We can come up with technologies that will allow us to use the energy value that’s still in the spent fuel,” Klein contends, “and if we reuse a lot of that material by putting it in breeder reactors we’ll have fuel availability for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Unless and until either Yucca Mountain opens or a reprocessing plant is built, experts say the best alternative to storage in the pools is the so-called dry cask method. This involves shoveling the spent fuel into containers, draining away the water, and then sealing them up in several layers of metal and concrete for storage on remote, unmanned sites surrounded by barbed wire and cameras.
While the dry cask method is safer than pool storage, in an era when suicidal terrorists are plentiful it’s not hard to envision a nightmare scenario. Glaser says just such visions have led to calls for burying containers—and the power plants—underground, but this in turn offers no protection from a massive earthquake, he points out. In the meantime, as a nation we will have to make choices about whether to shutter old plants—which by no means eliminates the radioactive hazards they present—relicense them for continued use, or phase in safer nuclear technologies. Stubbins and others hope the public will take a look at new designs.
Among these are fail-safe cooling systems. In contrast to those at the Fukushima site, which require pumps to keep the water flowing, a self-contained system, according to Stubbins, allows the steam to rise, recondense, and then fall back into the reactor, where it can again cool the core. Also under consideration are pebble bed reactors, which use ceramic-encased pellets of fuel on a bed that automatically spreads them out as the temperature rises, ensuring that they won’t overheat.
But none of the improvements will come to fruition if the public rejects them, either through the political framework or the market. In a messy situation, rational risk assessments may yet win us through to a sustainable, clean-energy future—one that conceivably could include nuclear. However, fear-driven policymaking now could lead to the worst of all outcomes: a mountain of nuclear waste under a burgeoning sky full of carbon dioxide and coal soot.
Clay Farris Naff is an author and freelance science writer who explores relations between science and religion. He regularly blogs for the Huffington Post and also serves as the executive director of Lincoln Literacy Council in Lincoln, Nebraska.