Photo: Fukushima and the future of nuclear power

Aerial view of Fukushima nuclear power plant (Creative Commons).

By Tyler Bryant, Energy Policy Analyst

In light of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, many people are asking about nuclear energy. Because it is a clean-emitting but dangerously toxic energy source, nuclear power strikes to the crux of the important environmental issues we face and exposes the difficult trade-offs that we must consider. I'd like to address those key questions and concerns and to assess what role, if any, nuclear power has in our future.

First, the lack of information coming from Fukushima and poor planning around risk and contingency systems are problematic. Nuclear power is fraught with conflicting interests around risk planning, commercial interests and transparency regarding crisis response. Officials from TEPCO, the company that operates the plant, have their hands full, and many of the monitoring instruments are likely damaged, but this proves that our contingency systems are likely inadequate in light of cascading events from a nuclear crisis. Can our political, regulatory and commercial institutions adequately manage the risks, contingencies and accidents with respect to nuclear power? Are we learning lessons from Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, or are we repeating the same mistakes? Why is TEPCO, a company that didn't plan for such an accident, charged with managing the disaster? Why has the Japanese government only recently and reluctantly stepped in? Clearly, if nuclear power is to factor in the future, a meaningful coalition of government, business and the public needs to conduct the risk assessment and planning measures.

As well, we still don't have unified and responsive reporting on radiation at the site and surrounding area. Information must be credible and available immediately. I understand that the responsible parties want to protect citizens but do not want to foment panic. Still, the lack of credible tracking and reporting is leaving people in Japan and the rest of the world jittery. It appears that radiation monitoring at Fukushima is ham-fisted and unreliable. This is especially concerning considering the proximity of major population centres to the site. Why was radiation monitoring and reporting an unspecified component of a disaster response plan? With third-part reports of plutonium on the site and high radiation levels near the facility we need to be able to decipher this information.

We must also consider the costs of these disasters and the overall costs of nuclear power. It could have been worse. Fukushima was set for decommissioning shortly, but what if the plant was relatively new? A facility like this would cost billions today. What if it were rendered inoperable after only a couple years earning back a fraction of its costs? Ratepayers, and most likely taxpayers, would be on the hook. This is a risk for any type of new generating capacity, but the costs of a nuclear plant are so large that stranded capital is a significant potential cost. Also, because the potential costs of a nuclear accident are so high, only governments will insure against the costs. That means that taxpayers are effectively insuring the nuclear industry against disasters like this.

The toughest nut of nuclear power has always been in the cleanup. We still don't have a safe, cheap and reliable method to deal with the radioactive waste. Nuclear waste has always been a problem and one of the most problematic issues at the Fukushima site is the spent fuel pools evaporating and exposing the area to radiation. This is the great lapse in the nuclear industry with no palatable solutions. Some proponents say that breeding reactors will be able to recycle the spent rods into useful energy thus greatly reducing the amount of waste. But to reprocess these rods will take hundreds of years, and we will still be left with waste (albeit much less) at the end. Waste will invariably remain onsite at the reactor facility as shipping it is too risky. This goes back to the planning point: Should reactors only be built where the waste can be buried "safely" onsite?

With all that said, the technological advances and proposed concepts and designs for new reactors show some promise. Furthermore, backing away from nuclear, which would likely be replaced with fossil fuel energy, will almost certainly mean more greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the short-term. But with all the significant hurdles around planning, paying for and decommissioning nuclear power plants, does it really make sense for it to be a broadly applicable technology to displace fossil fuels? Nuclear power is a technology of angels, meaning that no mistakes are allowed. If the solution to climate change were strictly nuclear then we would need to build thousands of plants in many different countries with varying levels of experience managing nuclear power. In light of the questions above, it may well be that our ability to design, operate and clean up after these plants is not adequate and could never be adequate to avoid further crises.

April 5, 2011

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Dec 21, 2011
7:17 PM

The Fukushima disaster has unleashed quadrillions of radioactive nuclides. Each nuclide throws of energy, depending on its life, for seconds to billions of years. The global warming cuased by Fukushima has no parallel. Add in other nuclear disasters and occasional releases of ionized air by nuke plants and you have a very severe global warming act by nuclear. Add in the uranium exploration and mining and the cost of cleanup of radioctive areas and nuclear is the biggest culprit as per contribution to warming, far bigger than oil. As I write this, the Northern hemisphere has one of the warmest winters on record. This is the first winter after Fukushima. Finland has never been this warm. European ski hills have no snow. Nuclear power isnt clean nor does it mitigate global warming, rather it accelerates global warming. Wake up everyone.

May 17, 2011
12:00 PM

This is the latest on Fuku… why is not in the news and surprisingly here or in the fbook page? Anyway I can imagine, it’s not good for the real estate I guess. Anyhow I’m here to share and help. Cheers.

Apr 07, 2011
9:21 AM

Really piro? You’d put nuclear at the bottom, even below coal, natural gas, or flooding a huge valley to make a hydro dam?

Unless you’re in an earthquake zone or your national language is Sputnik, then nuclear’s pretty safe. The waste is usually stored on site in thick concrete bunkers.

Apr 06, 2011
6:01 PM

Fission power has been deemed affordable due to the large subsidies they receive and so it is misleading. The cost of fission on every level is far too high a price for humanity to pay. And in light of the fact that fusion power which is exponentially cheaper and safer we see that there are better options. See the above site for more info on better solutions.’ And it has nothing to do with the expensive Tokamak design.

Apr 06, 2011
2:37 PM

The tactic, here, of raising many scary-sounding questions (which likely have non-scary answers) is not convincing. The fact is, an aging nuclear plant experienced a once-in-1000-years magnitude earthquake. The result? Almost no one lost his life and only a negligible increase in radiation was experienced in the vicinity.

Nuclear power is about as safe as energy gets. If environmentalist continue to spread fear instead of actively promoting it, the sincerity of their interest in finding an abundant source of clean energy might start to be questioned.

Apr 05, 2011
6:48 PM

liquid air/nitrogen is not good idea. material properties change with temerature and sudden cooling could shatter reactor like wine bottle hitting the boat.

Apr 05, 2011
5:04 PM

not to mention the radioactive waste that is produced that doesn’t decompose for up to millions of years…

Apr 05, 2011
2:41 PM

I don’t understand how we can say that nuclear energy is so clean. You have to mine the urananium and refine it which in itself isnt all that clean as I undertand. Then you have some problems like Chernobil 3Mile and Japan what hjave you got ? Spent nuclear rods wating around for ever to cool and toxic as hell. As far as I am concerned nuclear energy is as the bottom of the heap as far as clean goes. I am also thinking by now they should be injecting some nitrogen into those reactors to maybe slow the reaction down at least. Water cools some but -260c would be better or am I just having a nightmare.

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