Tuesday 15 March 2011

Fukushima and the future of nuclear power

Back in university I wrote an essay on safety and nuclear power. Basically my analysis was that a water-cooled reactor could never melt-down under conceivable circumstances, that 3-Mile Island only suffered partial meltdown because of a series of avoidable accidents, and that an accident that knocked out both the primary and back-up cooling systems would probably also destroy the reactor and was therefore not worth worrying about.

I also wrote that Chernobyl exploded because it was basically a bomb - the graphite blazed out of control after the initial melt-down, no-one would build another reactor like that in the future. The conclusion was that another major nuclear accident like Chernobyl was almost impossible.

Yes, I know Fukushima hasn't gone into full meltdown yet, and the reactor vessels are, as far as we know, still in tact. However, the circumstances I described as being inconceivable have occurred - an accident bad enough to knock out the cooling systems, but not so bad as to destroy the reactor. Moreover, if explosions can tear reactor containment buildings apart in the way they did at Fukushima, the reactor itself can also be destroyed, and the fuel spread over a large area in just the same way the Chernobyl explosion did. It didn't happen, or at least it hasn't yet, but it could have.

I'm a long-term supporter of nuclear fission power, but I also think that this accident should at the very least give the supporters of nuclear fission food for thought. There are reactor types at the experimental stage, such as inert gas-cooled reactors which should not be vulnerable to the chenical explosions that tore apart Chernobyl and the Fukushima reactor buildings. This won't eliminate the low risks associated with spent nuclear fuel though.

On the other hand, the German government's de-activation of seven of the seventeen nuclear reactors in Germany is a ridiculous over-reaction.

[Picture: A satellite picture of the explosion at the Unit 3 containment building at the Fukushima I plant. Picture made available by DigitalGlobe under a CC-by-ND-NC 2.0 license.]


justrecently said...

The silliness of the German center-right federal government's (over)reaction lies in its inconsistency. There was a phase-out agreement in place when it came to power, negotiated by its social-democrat / green predecessors (negotiated with the energy suppliers, so as to avoid legal conflict or other costs for the public budgets). Chancellor Merkel's center-right government extended the phase-out period only a few months ago, and has now been caught flat-footed.

Most Germans have been opposed to nuclear energy for decades, and in a democracy, I believe, you can't keep to a nuclear energy policy without public approval. If the previous phase-out duration had remained in place, there may not have been the need for a "review", let alone the knee-jerk "action" on seven of our nuclear plants now.

Btw, at least in Germany, where the public is highly critical anyway, the nuclear industry and the energy suppliers appear to be unable to communicate transparently and honestly with the public when there are incidents of any kind. That's handicapping pro-nuclear politicians, too.

Anonymous said...

What is the context of the phase out? Is it because of fear, or is there some ulterior motive, such as close connections between coal firms and the current center-right gov't, which already has a bunch of new coal plants going in.

justrecently said...

The phase-out was negotiated by former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's red-green government (1998 - 2005). The Greens had always been opposed to nuclear fuel, and the SPD (social democrats) had become opposed to it over the decades, since the mid-1980s.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right government might have preferred to reverse the agreement between the state and the energy suppliers altogether, but that would have been difficult to do, as the public was mostly favoring an early phase-out. So they rather prolonged the phase-out, only a few months ago. Not sure about the duration originally planned, and the duration according to the current government's (original) plans.

It should be noted that - reportedly - not only the seven plants which are to be switched off during the review process, but even two more, could be switched off, and we would still have the energy reserve the pertaining policy requires. According to a "Süddeutsche Zeitung" report of today (printed edition), here's therefore excess supply of energy. It could make sense to switch all pre-1980s plants off for good.

Gilman Grundy said...

@JR - Sorry about you getting blocked there. Blogspot just doesn't seem capable of handling links in the comments, and there's seemingly no way of turning it off.

justrecently said...

No prob, FOARP.Cool comments can wait.