NPI's Cascadia Advocate

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