As I write this, daylight has overtaken Japan on Tuesday morning, there has been a third explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant; this time in the second reactor. It appears that some kind of core containment breach has occurred, which will mean at minimum more released radioactivity. The staff has been evacuated, at least temporarily. There is an increasing danger of a core meltdown, which increases the risk of a steam explosion with far more radiation dispersal. The voice of the Japanese Prime Minister is wan and tight as he announces an increasing level of radiation emanating from the plant. I get the sense that the situation is all but officially out of control. Japan waits and in fact the whole world waits to see what happens next.
Whether Fukushima actually has a core meltdown (possibly more than one) or not, this is still a meltdown. As an alternative energy source to fossil fuels, nuclear power will have difficulty recovering. In a way nuclear energy suffers from the same problem the as airlines. The airline industry flies thousands of planes, billions of kilometers, and millions of passengers – day after day – with only a very few planes in any one year suffering a catastrophic accident. Yet almost each and every accident is accompanied by dramatic media coverage, and we are reminded yet again how dangerous it is to fly. When, of course, it isn’t.
Nuclear power plants have a similar problem, only a bigger problem by orders of magnitude. There are over 400 plants in operation around the world, and this is the third major event in over half a century. By the numbers, the ratio of accidents to days of normal operation is very low. It doesn’t matter. When there is an accident, it scares the shit out of us. It goes into the history books and into our language along with names known around the world: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl.
In this case Fukushima stands in direct comparison to the damage done by the forces of nature that caused the nuclear emergency in the first place. No matter how bad it becomes, Fukushima won’t even come close to the effect of the 9.0 earthquake and following tsunami: Thousands and thousands of dead, whole cities destroyed, a great industrial nation brought to a commercial stand-still. Yes, but that was Nature. We can do nothing about earthquakes. Fukushima was made by humans – by us – by and for us. Therefore, we sense this is a very different situation. We have responsibility.
Of course, no country has a greater appreciation – horror – of nuclear energy than Japan. Yet as a geographically small island country not blessed with large hydrocarbon resources, Japan elected to develop nuclear energy. It was either that or find its economy unable to keep up with the rest of the world. Of course, the Japanese knew they were building nuclear power plants on the “Ring of Fire,” the seismic and volcanic edge of the Pacific Ocean. They took the risks. The insurers took the risks.
Today those risks don’t look so good. They look worse to those who consider insuring nuclear power plants. They look worse yet to the many people who consider nuclear energy not only an unacceptable risk, but an abomination.
So the impact of Fukushima, the magnitude of disaster which is still unfolding, will be like that of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Yet again those who want to take the risks for the sake of prosperity and comfort must also face the potential costs and losses – along with millions of other people who have little or no say in taking those risks. The political ripples will be mighty and unavoidable.
Once again, the costs of nuclear energy will rise: The technology must not only improve but also new installations must meet much higher standards, making them far more expensive. The insurance costs will go even higher. Where does that put nuclear energy in the spectrum of alternative energies? It is said that ‘peak oil’ is coming (soon, or is already here), which implies we must find alternative sources of energy. It is also often said that all the other alternative energy sources, solar, wind, geothermal, wave power, just can’t scale to provide enough energy. Is this true? The question will no doubt be revisited, yet again.
Unfortunately the costs and losses from other sources of energy are more subtle than a nuclear meltdown, which makes rational calculations very difficult, if not impossible. We’ve been to this point before, and nuclear energy went into a decades-long dormancy. It was just being revived.
A fire has just broken out at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, one headline I see is NUCLEAR CRISIS.