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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Aftermath of Tohoku megaquake demonstrates the folly of nuclear power

Two days have elapsed since Japan was pum­meled by one of the largest earth­quakes human­i­ty has ever doc­u­ment­ed. In that time, we’ve begun to see the trag­ic and painful extent of the dis­as­ter.

The earth­quake (which reg­is­tered 8.9 on the moment mag­ni­tude scale) and the ensu­ing tsuna­mi it spawned have laid waste to sev­er­al pre­vi­ous­ly peace­ful pre­fec­tures, claim­ing thou­sands of lives and destroy­ing entire com­mu­ni­ties.

To make mat­ters worse, the one-two punch of the quake and the tsuna­mi have desta­bi­lized sev­er­al of Japan’s nuclear pow­er plants, pre­cip­i­tat­ing an envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis that is get­ting worse by the hour. At least two reac­tors have com­plete­ly over­heat­ed. Plant oper­a­tors are try­ing to bring the sit­u­a­tion under con­trol by cool­ing the cores with sea­wa­ter. But their response has been beset with com­pli­ca­tions, as the New York Times explains:

Usu­al­ly when a reac­tor is first shut down, an elec­tric pump pulls heat­ed water from the ves­sel to a heat exchang­er, and cool water from a riv­er or ocean is brought in to draw off that heat.

But at the Japan­ese reac­tors, after los­ing elec­tric pow­er, that sys­tem could not be used. Instead the oper­a­tors are dump­ing sea­wa­ter into the ves­sel and let­ting it cool the fuel by boil­ing. But as it boils, pres­sure ris­es too high to pump in more water, so they have to vent the ves­sel to the atmos­phere, and feed in more water, a pro­ce­dure known as “feed and bleed.”

When the fuel was intact, the steam they were releas­ing had only mod­est amounts of radioac­tive mate­r­i­al, in a non­trou­ble­some form. With dam­aged fuel, that steam is get­ting dirt­i­er.

Sci­en­tists are now sug­gest­ing the radioac­tive releas­es could go on for months. The White House is fool­ish­ly try­ing to down­play the dan­ger, at least here in the Unit­ed States, by point­ing to mod­el­ing which sug­gests that emis­sions are unlike­ly to cause the air above U.S. ter­ri­to­ry to become more radioac­tive.

Even if they’re cor­rect — and we’re not sure that they are — what about Japan? What about the com­mu­ni­ties close to these reac­tors? Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple have already been evac­u­at­ed due to the dan­ger. Are nuclear pow­er boost­ers not con­cerned about them? Are they not con­cerned about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a sim­i­lar calami­ty ensnar­ing us decades from now?

To bor­row a phrase from Pres­i­dent Oba­ma: Make no mis­take, what’s hap­pen­ing now in Japan could hap­pen to us if we’re naive enough to let nuclear pow­er boost­ers build more reac­tors. By now, the truth should be painful­ly obvi­ous to any­body who is pay­ing atten­tion: Nuclear pow­er is nei­ther safe nor clean.

Con­se­quent­ly, it can­not, under any cir­cum­stance, be part of the solu­tion to the cli­mate cri­sis or to the prob­lem of ener­gy inde­pen­dence.

Even if there were no such things as earth­quakes and tsunamis, and even if all nuclear pow­er plants were built with sound engi­neer­ing and oper­at­ed by human­i­ty’s finest, nuclear pow­er would still be nei­ther safe nor clean. That’s because humans make mis­takes and nuclear fis­sion pro­duces radioac­tive waste.

There’s no get­ting around this.

My reply to every worth­less col­umn pro­mot­ing the “promise” of nuclear pow­er is sim­ple: Where are you going to put the waste?

There is no good answer to that ques­tion, and that’s part­ly why there will nev­er be anoth­er nuclear pow­er plant built in the Unit­ed States. Nobody wants to live near a radioac­tive waste dump. And nuclear pow­er plants are, by def­i­n­i­tion, waste dumps. Attempts to min­i­mize the amount of waste close to reac­tors by trans­port­ing con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed mate­ri­als to an off­site loca­tion have gone nowhere. Look at the ruckus that Neva­da has made over Yuc­ca Moun­tain. Peo­ple there are not inter­est­ed in the dis­tinc­tion of being the nation’s per­ma­nent home for radioac­tive waste.

Here in Wash­ing­ton, we’ve got enough trou­ble on our hands try­ing to clean up Han­ford, the most pol­lut­ed place in the coun­try. We the tax­pay­ers are spend­ing huge amounts of mon­ey try­ing to con­tain an eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phe.

Ear­ly in Han­ford’s his­to­ry, radioac­tive waste was dumped direct­ly into the ground, with no thought giv­en to the envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences. This wan­ton care­less­ness was even­tu­al­ly replaced by more informed indif­fer­ence, and lat­er, denial. The Depart­ment of Ener­gy has spent more time down­play­ing, dither­ing and pro­cras­ti­nat­ing than it has spent deal­ing with the prob­lem. If you know any­thing about Han­ford’s recent his­to­ry, then you know exact­ly what I’m talk­ing about. If you don’t, I sug­gest read­ing the fol­low­ing:

Here’s a ques­tion not many peo­ple seem to have giv­en much thought to: What hap­pens if a big earth­quake strikes the Pacif­ic North­west and caus­es leaky old tanks to burst at Han­ford? Let’s not for­get that the Unit­ed States abuts the Ring of Fire, just as Japan does. Wash­ing­ton is Earth­quake Coun­try. So are Ore­gon, Cal­i­for­nia, Alas­ka, and Hawaii — the oth­er Pacif­ic states.

Build­ing nuclear pow­er plants any­where is a bad idea. Build­ing nuclear pow­er plants in regions that are seis­mi­cal­ly active is an even worse idea. Japan has griev­ous­ly erred by con­tin­u­ing to con­struct new reac­tors rather than plac­ing a greater empha­sis on con­ver­sa­tion and renew­able ener­gy sources. They should have known bet­ter, giv­en how fre­quent­ly they’re hit by earth­quakes.

We in Wash­ing­ton were on the verge of copy­ing them, and might have done so were it not for the spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure of the Wash­ing­ton Pub­lic Pow­er Sup­ply Sys­tem, bet­ter known as WPPSS, or “Whoops!”

In the 1970s, WPPSS planned to build a num­ber of new reac­tors at Han­ford and at Sat­sop in Grays Har­bor Coun­ty to meet an antic­i­pat­ed increase in demand for elec­tric­i­ty. Sev­er­al years after their plans (which were based on erro­neous assump­tions) were set into motion, it became evi­dent that WPPSS offi­cials did­n’t have the expe­ri­ence or the exper­tise to deliv­er what they had been promis­ing.

Costs were spi­ral­ing out of con­trol, con­struc­tion on the pro­posed plants had been plagued by delays, and mis­man­age­ment result­ed in sub­stan­dard work­man­ship.

In 1981, NPI’s Steve Zemke act­ed to pro­tect the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton by orga­niz­ing the Don’t Bank­rupt Wash­ing­ton cam­paign. Don’t Bank­rupt Wash­ing­ton suc­cess­ful­ly qual­i­fied an ini­tia­tive to the bal­lot that pro­posed requir­ing a pub­lic vote pri­or to the issuance of bonds for con­struc­tion of major pub­lic ener­gy projects. The ini­tia­tive was over­whelm­ing­ly approved by 58% of the elec­torate.

Courts ruled that I‑394 did­n’t apply to WPPSS’ exist­ing con­tracts, but I‑394 did help bring about an end to its nuclear ambi­tions.

Only one reac­tor out of five was ever com­plet­ed: Reac­tor No. 2, which is today known as the Colum­bia Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion at Han­ford.

Since the fail­ure of WPPSS, there have been no seri­ous pro­pos­als to build new reac­tors any­where in Wash­ing­ton. Nor will there be in the future.

The Sendai megaquake has illus­trat­ed the fol­ly of rely­ing on nuclear pow­er for ener­gy. Mul­ti­ple reac­tors in Japan have mor­phed from assets into lia­bil­i­ties in a mat­ter of hours. At this point, the most the oper­a­tors can achieve is to min­i­mize fur­ther explo­sions and emis­sions. The desta­bi­lized plants are basi­cal­ly totaled.

The debate on the wis­dom of nuclear pow­er needs to be over. It’s time for us to turn our atten­tion to devel­op­ing tru­ly renew­able sources of ener­gy, and reduc­ing demand through con­ser­va­tion. We have enough radioac­tive sludge to deal with as it is. The last thing we should be doing is cre­at­ing even more tox­ic waste.

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2 Comments

  1. Nuclear pow­er is a fool’s errand, that’s for sure. It’s a pub­lic works black hole. It just needs to be out­lawed.

    # by Rory :: March 13th, 2011 at 11:47 PM
  2. Just to clar­i­fy, the Don’t Bank­rupt Wash­ing­ton ini­tia­tive, I‑394, was not set aside by the courts. It is still state law and has saved the state from invest­ing in large cost­ly pow­er plants that were not nec­es­sary. The finan­cial via­bil­i­ty of many of these projects is ques­tion­able. The ini­tia­tive requires that cost effec­tive­ness stud­ies be done as part of the util­i­ties sub­mit­ting a large project for a vote.

    The courts ruled that I‑394 could not be applied to con­tracts for projects exist­ing at the time the ini­tia­tive passed. The irony is that WPPSS tried to con­tin­ue rais­ing funds for the projects and ulti­mate­ly went bank­rupt, just as we said, trig­ger­ing the largest munic­i­pal bond default in his­to­ry.

    The court and WPPSS were wrong. The pub­lic paid for this mis­take in high­er util­i­ty bills. I‑394 is still state law and requires a pub­lic vote before bonds can be issued for any large pub­lic util­i­ty plants over 350 MW.

    Dur­ing the man­u­fac­tured Enron ener­gy short­age scan­dal, util­i­ties tried to get the leg­is­la­ture to repeal the ini­tia­tive but they did­n’t.

    # by Steve Zemke :: March 14th, 2011 at 3:02 PM