Along with all the other news surrounding the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the nuclear power industry is also in the spotlight due to problems that have arisen at some Japanese reactor facilities in the aftermath of the disaster. It is still a developing situation, and there is far too much that is not known about the results to make any definitive, final statement about the matter. But this is going to trigger an awful lot of debate, and I expect both sides will use this as a case to bolster their arguments.
Let me lay out perspectives from both sides of the issue in the context of the current (and still ongoing) events in Japan and suggest that neither side is going to be able to make an ironclad argument for their side based on this evidence.
On the no-nukes side, the fact that problems have arisen, and that a completely earthquake-proof reactor cannot be built will be used as evidence to support the need to avoid nuclear reactors. Two containment buildings have had hydrogen explosions which have torn those buildings apart (although the containment vessels inside them holding the radioactive materials appear to remain intact), and the surrounding area has had to be evacuated as a precaution.The pro-nukes side can point to this and say that these plants withstood a magnitude 8.9 earthquake, and the ensuing tsunami, and the containment vessels and other safety systems have performed without rupture. There have been no containment breaches so far, and any release of radioactive material has been fairly low.
Safety is the biggest issue with nuclear power, but if safety is the criterion by which we are measuring our power sources, other sources are far more dangerous. From a safety standpoint, the Fukushima plant shows why multiple backup systems are necessary for nuclear power installations. It took an unprecedented event to push things to the point of failure that they have reached, but even at this point, there has not been a serious release of radioactive material, and the area around the plants has been able to be evacuated safely.
Ultimately, it comes down to cost. As with many other things, there are tradeoffs between design and expense, between money and security. Certainly engineers could design more and more safeguards. Should all nuclear reactors be designed to withstand a magnitude 9.0 earthquake? It certainly makes sense for any reactor in Japan, but maybe less so for France.
To evaluate the nuclear power industry soley on the performance of the Japanese reactors would, in some ways, be akin to evaluating the airline industry as a result of a crash of a 1960s-era plane. Newer, and arguably safer designs exist, though some are untested.
There are new designs for nuclear reactors that have additional safety features and better robustness. There are smaller-scale, enclosed designs which don't have the same criticality, designs that use different materials, such as thorium instead of uranium, and designs that fail into a safe state, rather than needing to have active pump cooling to control the reactor after shutdown.
Nuclear power (as currently practiced) uses a centralized system for power generation. This allows the production of great amounts of power, but also concentrates the risk. Two of the reactors at Fukushima have been flooded with seawater, which will effectively kill them from further use. That represents billions of dollars of investment lost (but in the greater interest of public safety).
Centralized power generation also allows the risk mitigation to be concentrated. Security, regulation, administration, and expertise can all be focused on a relatively small number of locations, which magnifies the leverage. On the other hand, more widely and decentralized power generation can be less susceptible to natural disasters, as well as to systemic failures.
Is it more cost-effective to have the money spent on safety systems for a nuclear power plant, or would that money be better spent on producing other equipment? Is a ton of steel better used as reinforcement for a nuclear containment vessel or as a tower for a wind turbine?
Nuclear power can seem like a "silver bullet" solution, since it provides large amounts of power without direct carbon emissions. It may be a stopgap to help in the transition away from unsustainable carbon emitting systems like coal and oil. But the long-term effects need to be considered and need to be addressed to make a fair comparison with other technologies.
Editor's Note: Speculating about an issue before all the facts are known is always a dicey proposition. This was a different article when I started writing it yesterday than it is today. Nuclear power is a divisive issue for many people, so we ask that you be reasonable and respectful in the comments. Other people have different ideas than you do, but that doesn't make them evil. If you want to join in, let's have a civil discussion, and talk about the topic rationally. If you can't see the reasons why someone might have a different point of view, maybe you should reconsider jumping in.
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