As a reader of an American media website has confessed, what most people know about nuclear power is defined by watching “The Simpsons” on television.
This is playing in to the hands of both media editors and strident elements of the environmental movement, engaged in the “meltdown mayhem” game this week for all they are worth.
These amateur dramatics should be read against the calm opinion offered by a real expert journalist, Marks Hibbs, now a senior associate for the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowmen for World Peace in Berlin.
Boiled down, Hibbs says: (1) the problems at Fukushima are not caused by any lingering safety issues, (2) unlike Three Mile Island, the crisis has been initiated by events external to the power station, and (3) “this is not the same by any means as the accident at Chernobyl” – it is physically not possible to have a similar breach in containment of the reactor as occurred in Russia.
A senior commentator in “The Atlantic” magazine in the US makes the very good point that the monstrous earthquake and tsunami that followed it have stretched Japanese government and Tepco officials to breaking point and their communications are frequently failing to keep up with the 24/7 media demand for information.
This is fuelling the media’s indiscriminate use of “meltdown,” a seriously frightening term for most people, without understanding the context.
Critically, the Chernobyl plant lacked the major containment features used at Three Mile Island and in the Japanese plants.
Both work-a-day journalists and the public need to be reminded that, whether coal-fired or nuclear, power production in these big plants works on the same principle: create heat to turn water in to steam to drive turbines in a generator.
The big difference is what happens, apart from loss of supply and local injuries and loss of life, in a physical disaster such as the one that has engulfed Fukushima.
What should happen in this nuclear design is that, when the reactor shuts down, water is pumped through the core to keep it cool.
At Fukushima, the tsunami flooded the back-up diesel generators, preventing the cooling activity – hence the current crisis.
What the Tepco engineers are doing is to find other ways to cool the core and it is anything but easy in a disaster-ravaged environment.
Importantly, with respect to new nuclear programs being followed in the US, China, India and elsewhere, the need for pumps for emergency cooling has been obviated: the water is moved by gravity.
The explosions that have provided dramatic effect for television coverage this week have been in the plants’ secondary buildings in to which steam was being released – something ignited the hydrogen left behind after the steam condensed.
The walls, a metre to two metres thick, containing the reactor cores have not been breached.
Seven reactors at Fukushima have been affected by the earthquake.
Four reportedly still have access to power to run their water pumps and are in no danger.
Engineers have been able to provide a steady level of water for one of the remaining three but have had to turn to using seawater to stabilize the other two.
The battle is to keep the heat levels in these reactors dropping until the plant can be shut down.
While this is obviously going to take time at Fukushima, the prognosis on present indications is positive even if the “all clear” cannot be given for days.
The fact that the Japanese government has evacuated communities near the reactors and is handing out iodine pills, of course, fuels the media drama, but this is a sensible precaution that the Russians failed to take.
It does not, as much of the media coverage tends to imply, mean that a Chernobyl-style disaster is imminent.
Longer term, the backlash around the world to the use of new nuclear power – and the retention of existing plants, especially in Germany, where this is a major political issue right now – is inevitable.
The industry has a saying that a nuclear incident in one place is an incident everywhere – that every such event is grist to the mill of the global anti-nuclear fraternity – and Fukushima will reinforce this in spades, with some leading politicians in the US already calling for a moratorium on Obama’s ambitions to use the technology to help drive decarbonisation.
Today nuclear energy meets 14 per cent of the world’s electricity supply, although the capacity is heavily concentrated in just six countries.
Both the renewables sector and the gas supply industry are already saying, just quietly at present, that substantial investments in nuclear can now be expected to be delayed this decade to their benefit.
However, there is little chance that China will deviate from its nuclear plan – it already has 10,800 MW of nuclear capacity and plans to add at least another 40,000 MW this decade. Already spokesmen there are reacting to Fukushima by saying that the lessons to be learned from Japan will be taken in to account, but China will not change its determination to build nuclear power.
India’s program to double its nuclear capacity over two decades, on the other hand, may be harder to pursue. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has already ordered a safety review for the 20 existing reactors, two of which use the Fukushima design.
A think-tank in New Delhi probably spoke for a wider community than India in commenting this week that: “Democracies are reactive and an accident of this magnitude will raise concerns among the population about the safety of the technology.”