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Japan's Fukushima explosions: A setback for nuclear power?

By Rachel Alexander
web posted March 28, 2011

Japan's deadly earthquake and tsunami disaster on March 11, 2011, which caused nuclear reactors in Fukushima Daiichi to overheat, has revived the debate over whether nuclear power is safe. New York's Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo called for shutting down the Indian Point Energy nuclear power station in Buchanan, N.Y. Over 100,000 people took to the streets in Taiwan on March 20 to protest construction of a fourth nuclear power plant there. Artificially heightening concern over the Fukushima accident are reports of people hurt and displaced by the tsunamis and earthquakes; the death toll is expected to reach 10,000. In reality, the Fukushima reactors handled the earthquake and subsequent tsunami somewhat adequately, a vast improvement over the the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Due to numerous safety improvements made to nuclear plants since Chernobyl, very few people were injured and the fallout has been nominal. A sample of water taken from Tokyo, 150 miles south of the reactor, found only a tiny level of iodine, well below the tolerable level for food and drink.

The biggest difference between Chernobyl and Fukushima is the presence of steel pressure containers protecting the nuclear reactors at Fukushima. They stopped radioactive material from spreading into the environment. When the explosion occurred at the Chernobyl reactor, there was nothing to block radioactive material from spreading over a wide area. It is estimated that anywhere from 30,000 to 1 million people living near Chernobyl came down with cancer as a result, and much of the surrounding area remains uninhabitable to this day.

Unless there is an additional mishap at the Fukushima reactors, a full meltdown is unlikely. The plant houses six nuclear reactors. When the cooling systems failed, the fuel rods in the core of the reactors heated up, causing explosions or fires at three of the reactors. If they are not cooled down, it could result in full nuclear core meltdowns which could crack or melt the containments, allowing radioactive material to escape into the atmosphere. The Japanese are pouring seawater on the reactors to cool them down, regardless of whether it renders them inoperable in the future.

Additionally, the spent fuel pool at reactor building No. 4, which sits above the containment vessel, may have boiled dry, causing the fuel rods to dry up and crack. Due to a breach in its wall or floor, it has been difficult filling the spent fuel pool with cooling water and preventing radiation from escaping. The roofs on buildings surrounding two of the reactors were blown off by hydrogen explosions, but the reactors and the steel containers around them inside have remained intact.

Also unlike Chernobyl, people nearby have been evacuated in case anything gets worse. Radiation levels are high at the site, but people up to 12 miles away have been evacuated. The small amount of radioactive material that is leaking is blowing out to sea.

The Fukushima power plant failed because it did not have enough safety backups in place. Wikileaks reports that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned Japan that its reactors were only designed to withstand 7-magnitude tremors. Even so, the steel containers around the reactors held firm. When the earthquake hit, knocking out the power, the backup diesel generators kicked into action as planned. It was the compounding event, the tsunami hitting the backup generators afterwards, that caused the damage. The backup diesel and battery generators could not withstand the tsunami, and shut down, stopping the cooling system. If there had been additional safety backups in place capable of handling the tsunami, the accident would have been avoided.

The U.S. hasn't had a nuclear reactor accident since Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island accident in 1979, over 30 years ago. Even that was not serious. The core of one reactor was destroyed, but unlike Fukushima, there were no hydrogen explosions; the buildings around the reactors were unaffected. No one died or was injured. There was little radiation released and no evidence of long-term harm to the public.

The U.S. obtains 20% of its energy from nuclear power. There are over 100 nuclear power plants in operation in the U.S. Some are located near earthquake fault lines, and are only built to withstand 6 or 7-magnitude earthquakes. A few have spent fuel pools outside the steel containers. However, it is highly unlikely there would be a quake nearby of 8 or 9-magnitude. No nuclear power plants are located near uninterrupted faults long enough to sustain a quake that large.
To avoid scenarios like this in the future, there must be additional safety backups put into place, including more emergency generator backups, no matter how redundant they seem. It would also be helpful to replace the older model generators with fourth generation, or Gen IV plants, which are much more efficient and far less likely to increase in heat. Five of the six reactors at Fukushima use the Mark 1 model boiling water reactor designed by G.E. in the 1960s, and that model or similarly designed reactors are used in 23 U.S. nuclear power plants. Regardless, the older reactors located in the U.S. have had numerous safety additions and the Fukushima accident appears to have happened due to a lack of safety measures, not due to design flaws. The Japanese have a history of not reporting safety issues in a timely manner.

Nuclear power is still one of the best options for electricity. It is 25 percent cheaper than coal, less than one-quarter the cost of natural gas, and almost five times cheaper than oil. Oil prices are increasing with no sign of ever coming back down. Reliance upon oil and coal carry their own risks. There have been expensive oil spills that are bad for the environment, and multiple deadly coal mine explosions. Coal, oil and natural gas emit air pollution, unlike nuclear energy. Other alternative and renewable fuels are unreliable and not cost-effective, or they would be in much heavier usage. 

Thirteen to 14% of the world's electricity comes from nuclear power. France obtains 75% of its energy from nuclear power, and sells 18% of it to other countries. 12 other nations rely upon nuclear power even heavier than Japan, which gets 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors.

Two years ago, a Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans favor building new nuclear plants in the U.S. After the Fukushima accident, that percentage dropped to 44%. However, in a vote of confidence, Russia announced immediately after the Fukushima accident that it was going ahead with building a nuclear power plant in Belarus using newer reactors.

Hopefully the far left will not provoke an uninformed, emotional reaction by the government resulting in restrictions on nuclear power. Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has asked the Obama administration for a moratorium on license renewals by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. U.S. nuclear regulators have announced they will be launching additional inspections of nuclear power plants in the U.S. shortly. We are past the era of Chernobyl, and the U.S.'s own history includes nothing that careless. When France, a socialist country, embraces nuclear power more wholeheartedly than us, you know the left wing hysteria here is baseless. ESR

Rachel Alexander and her brother Andrew are co-Editors of Intellectual Conservative. Rachel practices law and social media political consulting in Phoenix, Arizona. She has been published in the American Spectator, Townhall.com, Fox News, NewsMax, Accuracy in Media, The Americano, ParcBench, and other publications.

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