As the struggle to regain control of the Fukushima nuclear power plant continues, Stanford experts say nuclear power faces a critical reevaluation.
When a 9.0 earthquake struck offshore of northeastern Japan on Mar. 11, it triggered a massive tsunami that swept over sea walls built for much smaller waves and swamped the Fukushima nuclear power plant, damaging the backup generators and power grid. These latter devices were meant to stabilize the plant in the event of such an emergency, said physics professor Burton Richter.
With its last source of energy gone, workers at the plant were no longer able to cool the plant’s reactors, which soon overheated, leading to hydrogen gas explosions, fires and the release of radioactive elements.
As workers worked to prevent further damage to the plant, alarm spread when a plume of radioactive particulates floated over the Pacific Ocean, bringing increased levels of radiation to the United States a week later. The fact that such a disaster occurred in Japan, which boasted some of the strictest earthquake safety codes in the world, has prompted experts to revisit their relationship with nuclear power.
Preparing for the unexpected
In light of failures in Fukushima’s safety designs, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has begun a major evaluation of its policies toward reactor safety systems, marking the agency’s third such major overhaul.
The first occurred after the 1979 Three Mile Island partial meltdown. The second overhaul came after the 9/11 attacks, when the commission studied ways to guard against terrorist attacks—a possibility that, like the combined tsunami and earthquake, no one had previously thought was possible, Richter said.
Richter speculated that one major point of interest for the commission would be to calculate how long a plant would have to rely on emergency generators before power could be reconnected. This failure was one of the factors that precipitated the weeklong crisis at Fukushima.
“I think that having lost power for two weeks was something of a surprise,” Richter said. “The right question to be asked is, do we have to change requirements for the amount of fuel for on-site emergency generators in the United States?”
The commission may also study the possibility of what Richter calls “multiple catastrophe” scenarios at each nuclear site. These scenarios include floods and tornadoes in the Midwest and tsunamis and earthquakes in California, he said.
California currently only has two active reactors Diablo Canyon and San Onofre and both are near active fault lines, according to Edward Blandford, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), whose work focuses on nuclear reactor design. Unlike Japan, California lies on many slip-strike faults, which are much less likely to generate tsunamis than Japan’s thrust faults.
Blandford also noted that the Fukushima plant responded well to the actual earthquake and was actually damaged by the resulting tsunami. The California plants, he added, are also designed to withstand 0.67 G peak ground acceleration during an earthquake, which is double of what the Fukushima site experienced.
In addition to changing current nuclear plant regulations, the crisis will also greatly shape the debate over national nuclear policy. California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, for example, have called for an immediate review of the California plants.
Blandford predicts that the most immediate impact will be either design or operational changes, particularly whether many older plants will be granted permission to continue to operate or be phased out.
The bigger question, Blandford noted, was whether new plants would be constructed.
The criteria that the NRC is reevaluating suggests that there will be a delay in granting site licenses, which evaluates proposed locations for nuclear plants, Richter agreed. As the NRC studies its current licensing and safety requirements, there will likely be a pause in the licensing of new nuclear reactors.
Blandford said there are currently two to four nuclear reactors in the process of acquiring licensing and construction permits.
Many of the problems encountered during the Fukushima crisis also revolved around the spent fuel pools, which Blandford said will “reinvigorate” the conversation over how such fuel should be stored, both temporarily and in the long run.
The initial proposal to store the spent fuel in the Yucca Mountains in Nevada was taken off the table after Obama’s election.
“There’s been a lot of concern over the politicization of the nuclear regulatory commission,” Blandford said.
The end of nuclear?
A recent poll by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a lobbyist group for the nuclear industry, found that support for nuclear energy in the U.S. had dropped to 2008 levels. This abrupt decline comes after five years of increases in the number of supporters for nuclear power plants.
But plans to build new nuclear power plants in the United States have dwindled long before the Mar. 11 earthquake struck Japan due, in part, to the weakened economy and the high upfront costs for building a reactor, Blandford said.
Although some larger public utilities companies, such as Southern Nuclear, which serves residents in Alabama and Georgia, are currently in the process of constructing additional plants, many companies are not able to make that same investment and have asked for government aid.
If you’re a utility that has a capitalization of $15 billion, it’s very difficult for you to make a $10 billion-dollar investment in a two-unit type plant,” Blandford said. “A lot of the utilities have asked the government to step in and help provide some loan guarantees with respect to making that investment upfront.”
The 2005 Federal Energy Act earmarked $50 billion dollars for a loan-guarantee program to facilitate the construction of nuclear power plants, but it remains to be seen whether the current administration will provide that same amount of support.
With the price of natural gas decreasing to about $4 dollars per million btu from $10 per million btu in 2008, Blandford predicts that these companies will be more likely to place their long term bets with natural gas, which currently produces about 24 percent of energy in the U.S. In comparison, nuclear reactors produce 20 percent and coal 40 percent.
Addressing media coverage of the current crisis, Richter said that nuclear is still one of the safest forms of energy currently in use, if the risks associated with coal mining and oil drilling are properly taken into account.
“The only thing that’s better is wind,” he added.
As uncertainty over the fate of the crippled Fukushima plant looms, some have declared this crisis the end of the nuclear age. Blandford, however, thinks that nuclear power will not disappear any time in the near future. That’s because, although the United States has other natural resources to tap for energy, many nations—such as
France, where nuclear reactors provide 80 percent of the country’s energy, or Japan, where nuclear produces 30 percent—face space and demand constraints, as well as a lack of abundant natural resources.
This need for a high-density energy source that requires little land space—which nuclear power provides—is why, although over 100 of the world’s approximately 400 reactors are located in the United States.
“The nuclear renaissance is not United-States-centric; in fact, it’s hardly that,” Blandford said.
Business as usual
China recently announced plans to build enough plants to supply about 100 gigawatts of power, equal to the amount of nuclear power produced in the United States. Though it remains unclear how Beijing’s policies might change in light of the Japanese crisis, other countries such as Germany, which had planned to heavily rely on nuclear fuel to reach its high renewable energy standard, have temporarily halted their nuclear expansion programs.
Blandford nonetheless predicts that many nations will eventually continue to pursue nuclear power.
“It’s silly for these countries to not stop and think about what happened in Japan and to reevaluate,” Blandford said. “But my guess is that the nature of the accident is such that people will either make appropriate designs or additional changes or will determine that it’s not a significant enough risk to them that they will continue to build out.”
Despite the practical reasons for supporting nuclear energy, many who are nervously watching the Fukushima plant feel that the potential for another similar disaster are too great to accept, and protests calling for its end have erupted worldwide. Current public outcry notwithstanding, Blandford cites the gradual loss of interest in banning offshore drilling a year after the 2009 Deepwater Horizon spill as an example of how “public distress does not necessarily enable action.”
“People have very short attention spans,” he said. “We saw the same thing happen with offshore drilling and at this point it appears that it’s business as usual.”
“I’m not sure that public response is going to impact long term changes to our policy,” he added.
Experts say that many concerns over nuclear energy is due to the public’s ignorance on the issue.
“We have an overwhelming lack of understanding about some of the most important industries that drive our countries,” Blandford said.
“Numbers are not going to relieve the public’s fear of nuclear,” Richter said. “It’s frightening and it’s up to the experts and the regulators to convince the public that they’ve done it right.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that California nuclear plants are designed to withstand 6.7 G peak ground acceleration during an earthquake. In fact, these plants are created to withstand 0.67 G peak ground acceleration.