After Fukushima, the nuclear power industry can’t catch a break.
Record-high flood levels on the Missouri River are threatening the operation of Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun nuclear power generator. If any one of six Missouri dams breaks, the result could be an “inland tsunami” which might have a result similar to that of the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant. (Coincidentally, it’s already reported that the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant is experiencing a “level 4″ emergency. There is some sort of fire taking place in the plant even before the Missouri floodwaters reach the reactor building.)
In Nebraska, we’re seeing another instance of man’s technological hubris being bruised (and potentially crushed) by the forces of nature.
It becomes increasingly apparent that nuclear power is “too hot to handle” and may be too dangerous to be employed anywhere.
• The problem with nuclear power plants isn’t simply that yet another reactor may suffer yet another melt-down. Part of the problem is that the “spent” fuel rods aren’t really “spent”; their efficiency is merely reduced. The “spent” fuel rods are still “hot” and must be stored for centuries to prevent their residual radiation from contaminating the world. The truth is that there are few, if any, nuclear storage facilities that can be relied on to safely store “spent” fuel rods for centuries.
Yes, there may be some geological formations (caves; salt mines) that have been stable for so long that they can be predicted to remain stable for centuries into the future. Fuel rods could be stored in such geological formations at minimum cost. But, despite the fact that such geological formations have been stable for eons, there’s no real guarantee that they’ll remain so for several more centuries. If the predicted geological stability is destroyed by an earthquake, the radioactive residue from the “spent” fuel rods might seep into the water table and the results could be catastrophic.
But even if “stable” caves and tunnels can safely store nuclear fuel rods, such geological formations are relatively rare. Much of the world has no stable site for the storage of spent fuel rods.
• Look at Japan. Because the island of Japan is so prone to earthquakes, they had to store Fukushima’s spent fuel rods in a “pond” that’s accessible to the open air. You don’t need a psychic or a PhD in engineering to predict that no one can expect to store a lethal product like “spent” fuel rods for decades (let alone centuries)—and keep the pumps running for decades/centuries to cool the fuel rods—without suffering a catastrophe. Sooner or later, some human error, technological failure, or natural disaster will cause the cooling pumps to fail. When that happens (as in Fukushima), all hell breaks loose.
And this “hell” is not just for Japan. The radioactive fallout from Fukushima has had (and continues to have) an unknown but potentially significant impact on much of the northern hemisphere’s fish, crops and people. Like the A.D. 1996 Chernobyl meltdown in the Ukraine, Fukushima will probably result in a Japanese “dead zone” which may remain uninhabitable for several generations.
What is the real economic cost of a “dead zone”? How many “dead zones” can we afford before it becomes obvious that safe nuclear power is not only beyond man’s current technological capacity, but economically unaffordable? When you add in the cost of “dead zones” and increased rates of cancer, is nuclear power really “cost-effective”?
With nuclear-generated power, we may get some cheap energy for now—but we will leave future generations with the cost of storing spent fuel rods for centuries. In real terms, I doubt that nuclear power can be justified as anything other than a temporary fix whose real, long-term costs are absolutely prohibitive.
• In the end, it’s not necessary that every nuclear power plant fail to reject nuclear power as an energy option.
What if five more plants fail over the course of the next 50 years? What is the real cost of five more catastrophes of the sort seen at Fukushima, Chernobyl, or even Three Mile Island? When the real costs of five more failures over the next 50 years (plus the real cost of storage, dead zones and cancer) are added to the immediate costs of operating nuclear power plants, is nuclear energy really cost-effective?
Increasingly, the answer appears to be No.
• All of this means that we’ll see fewer nuclear power plants built over the next 20 years.
But, fewer nuclear power plants means that growth in the supply of electrical energy will be reduced, the cost of electrical energy will increase as a percentage of GDP, and the national and global economies—which are absolutely dependent on cheap energy—are going to tend to slow down.
Crude oil and coal are unlikely to provide enough additional electrical power to compensate for the loss of nuclear power. Unless some extraordinary break-throughs occur in the areas of wind and solar power or nuclear fusion, our economic future is more likely to be “brown” than “green”. So long as the world remains wedded to the three “ancient” energy technologies of coal, petroleum and nuclear fission, the resulting shortage of electrical energy over the next 50 years could push the world’s economy back to a standard of living comparable to A.D. 1900.
On the other hand, if we abandon those “ancient” energy technologies and move aggressively forward into wind, solar and nuclear fusion, we might experience an economic renaissance.
• If you’re inclined to invest your money in a technology that’s likely to grow dramatically over the next generation, alternative energy is truly an “idea whose time has come”. Nuclear (fission) energy, on the other hand, is about to go the way of the hydrogen-filled dirigibles.
Surprisingly, even now, some engineers argue that our technology has advanced sufficiently to safely and economically return to hydrogen-filled dirigibles.
Bunk. I don’t care what any engineer or salesman says—sooner or later, something will screw up and even a super-safe, hi-tech, futuristic hydrogen-filled dirigible will explode just like the Hindenburg. You show me a bag full of hydrogen that’s the size of a warehouse, and I’ll show you a bomb.
Similarly, you show me a nuclear power plant, and I will show you an atomic bomb.
The nuclear power industry will deny this allegation and perhaps argue that a real “bomb” has a detonator. Therefore, since nuclear power plants have no detonator, they can’t be honestly characterized as “atomic bombs”. In fact, instead of a detonator, nuclear power plants are filled with a multitude of redundant safety devices to prevent any nuclear “accident” from taking place.
OK—but what are all of those redundant safety devices for, if not to prevent a nuclear “explosion”? Don’t all of those redundant safety devices prove that the nuclear power plants are known to be inherently and incredibly un-safe?
There aren’t any such redundant safety devices on my computer, refrigerator or TV. Why? Because those household appliances can’t “explode”.
The multitude of safety devices on nuclear power plants prove that these facilities include a copious capacity for catastrophe.
The nuclear power industry might also argue that the nuclear power plants can’t be accurately described as “atomic bombs” since, even if things go to a worst case scenario (as in Chernobyl and Fukushima), the result is merely a “meltdown”—not an actual nuclear explosion.
That’s all very true. It is unfair to describe nuclear power plants as “atomic bombs” because they don’t include detonators—and even if they did, they don’t really “explode”.
But I’d argue that the nuclear power plants do have “detonators”. These “detonators” are variously described as “human error” (a programming error in a computer), “accidents” (a 747 falls out of the sky and crashes on a nuclear facility), international war and terrorism (someone bombs a nuclear facility) or, my personal favorite, “Acts of God” (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, meteors, etc.). Yes, the men who design nuclear power plants may not include any detonators in the design—but, nevertheless, detonators exist. Thus, in theory, the nuclear power plants might be described as “atomic bombs”.
Even so, it’s also true that a catastrophic failure at a nuclear power plant won’t cause an actual “explosion” of the sort previously seen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
China syndrome: a “melt-down” of the nuclear reactor’s core that results in ball of molten radioactive material that is so hot that, if it reaches water, the result will include super-heated steam and a “steam explosion”.
OK—what’s a little steam explosion compared to an atomic bomb? The steam explosion should be trivial compared to a nuclear blast.
The problem is fall-out. Steam explosions help to spread radioactive materials. While an atomic bomb can consist of only a few pounds of radioactive material, a nuclear power plant core can include hundreds of tons of radioactive material.
According to Wikipedia,
“Soviet scientists reported that the Chernobyl Unit 4 reactor contained about 180–190 metric tons of uranium dioxide fuel and fission products. Estimates of the amount of this material that escaped range from 5 to 30 percent, but some liquidators [those who participated in cleaning up after the Chernobyl meltdown], who have actually been inside the sarcophagus and the reactor shell itself — e.g. Mr. Usatenko and Dr. Karpan — state that not more than 5–10% of the fuel remains inside; indeed, photographs of the reactor shell show that it is completely empty. Because of the intense heat of the fire, much of the ejected fuel was lofted high into the atmosphere (with no containment building to stop it), where it spread.”
And “where” did it spread? As you’ll read below, it spread around the world.
“The Chernobyl disaster . . . is the most significant unintentional release of radiation into the environment to date. It has been suggested that the radioactive contamination caused by the Chernobyl disaster greatly exceeded that of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 . . . . the isotopes released at Chernobyl tend to be longer-lived than those released by a bomb detonation . . . .”
I.e., the physical mass of radioactive material needed to construct an atomic bomb can be only a fraction of a percent of the mass of the nuclear material included in a nuclear power generator. Thus, the total mass of radioactive contaminants generated by a nuclear power-plant melt-down can be a several thousand times greater than the mass of contaminants released by an atomic bomb. It’s arguable that Chernobyl released more radioactive material into the world than might’ve been released by a nuclear World War III between the US and the form USSR.
Worse, the radioactive isotopes produced by power-plant meltdowns tend to last much longer than those produced by an atomic bomb. Nuclear power plants are the ultimate “dirty bomb”.
• The differences in the mass and longevity of radioactive materials released by atomic bombs and those released by nuclear power plant meltdowns can be seen in the consequences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb explosions and of the core melt-down at Chernobyl in A.D. 1996. After being devastated by atomic bombs in A.D. 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were quickly rebuilt and became dynamic and prosperous cities. But 25 years after the Chernobyl reactor suffered meltdown, there is still a 1,100 square mile “dead zone” surrounding the former Chernobyl reactor.
More, according to Wikipedia, as a result of the A.D. 1996 Chernobyl meltdown,
“Twenty five years after the catastrophe, restriction orders remain in place . . . in the UK . . . on 369 farms covering 750 km² and 200,000 sheep. In parts of Sweden and Finland, restrictions are in place on stock animals . . . . In certain regions of Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and Poland, wild game (including boar and deer), wild mushrooms, berries and carnivorous fish from lakes reach levels of several thousand Bq per kg of caesium-137, while in Germany, caesium-137 levels in wild boar muscle reached 40,000 Bq/kg. The average level is 6,800 Bq/kg, more than ten times the EU limit of 600 Bq/kg . . . . The European Commission has stated that “The restrictions on certain foodstuffs from certain Member States must therefore continue to be maintained for many years to come“.
Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, the radiological effects of that core meltdown continue to be felt not only at Chernobyl, but also at least eight other countries—and the end is not in sight.
So, is it unfair and unreasonable for me to describe nuclear power plants as “atomic bombs”?
Yes, indeed, it is.
Why? Because the nuclear power plant are potentially more dangerous than atomic bombs. It is unfair and unreasonable to describe nuclear power plants as “atomic bombs” because that analogy unfairly and unreasonably underestimates the lethal potential of nuclear power plants.
The nuclear power plants are potentially worse than “atomic bombs”.
• It’s true that the vast majority of these nuclear-power-plants/”atomic bombs” will not explode in this century.
But a few will “explode” (meltdown).
Meltdowns are not so rare as some suppose. Over the years, few meltdown have reached the levels of Chernobyl and Fukushima, but there’ve been at least six partial meltdowns in the US (Fermi1, Three Mile Island, EBR-1, Santa Susana Field Laboratory, SL-1, and BORAX-I). Chernobyl (A.D. 1996) and Fukushima (A.D. 2011) are evidence that such meltdowns are not artifacts of the past. At least two Soviet nuclear submarines experienced meltdowns. Other meltdowns have occurred at the Lucens reactor, Switzerland; NRX at Ontario, Canada; Windscale, Sellafield, England; A1 plant at Joslovske Bohunice, Czechoslovakia; and at St-Laurent, France (twice).
Of roughly 16 known meltdowns, only two—Chernobyl and Fukushima—have proved to be real disasters. Even so, how many more nuclear “explosions” (actually, meltdowns) can this world afford before the world becomes uninhabitable?
How many more Chernobyls, Fukushimas, and Three Mile Islands can this world withstand before nuclear fission is seen by all to be as crazy as the Hindenburg?
A: Not many.
Nuclear (fission) power is as irresponsible as raising kids in a house with a 50 pound bag of arsenic under the sink. It’s insane. Sooner or later, there’s going to be a disaster.
• Most likely, the dams on the Missouri River won’t fail this year, Nebraska won’t suffer an “inland tsunami,” and the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant won’t suffer a catastrophic “melt-down”. All the fuss about a current “level 4 emergency” at Fort Calhoun will probably turn out to be much ado about nothing. Probably.
But. The point remains that yet another nuclear power-plant disaster is possible.
Nuclear (fission) power is like playing Russian Roulette (maybe we should call it “Chernobyl Roulette”). How many “possible” nuclear power plant meltdowns can we evade before our luck runs out and we suffer another actual, nuclear catastrophe?
Nuclear (fission) power is as insane as playing “Chernobyl Roulette”. If you play the nuclear fission game long enough, sooner or later, your number will come up and you will be sorry. If you survive.
Nuclear power plants are slowly going down. The price of electricity must therefore go up. The global economy will suffer further, long-term pressures tending towards depression–or nuclear catastrophe–take your pick.
P.S. Here’s a 15-minute video posted on YouTube two days after I published the previous article that deals with the flooding Missouri and the Ft. Calhoun power plant. The video supports the concerns expressed in my article and offers more “worst case” evidence. More, the video claims that these dangers are not being reported by mainstream media: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvDbB3HqNcA&feature=player_embedded#at=67