There have been some intriguing articles recently about nuclear energy, which demonstrate the challenges entailed with obtaining power from this resource. An article in Reuters described how homeless people are being recruited to work in the nuclear cleanup in Fukushima, Japan, because few other people are willing to take on such a dangerous task for minimum wage. The people recruited for this work are not the highly trained and motivated, but rather the most vulnerable. Sadly, major criminal syndicates appear to be involved in the recruitment process, which has meant that there are serious failures in oversight and record keeping. Another article has described how the farmer Masami Yoshizawa illegally entered the forbidden zone around the nuclear power plant to save cattle abandoned when people were forced to flee in the aftermath of the disaster. He described a horrible scene of neglect, in which cattle died with their mouths in their feeding troughs, as they waited for their farmers to return and care for them. The government does not know what to do with Masami, and so he is not officially recognized as living there, even though (my favorite detail) he still has his electricity and his telephone turned on. The nuclear disaster continues to have a major economic impact on the country; for example, South Korea still refuses to buy Japanese seafood.
I’ve talked in an earlier post about how France’s government has sought to keep secret the catastrophic impact that a nuclear accident would inflict upon that nation’s economy. A recent BBC article describes how France has made a decision to reduce its reliance on nuclear power, because authorities realize that they could not handle a shutdown of the nation’s nuclear plants as had happened in Japan. France obtains three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, whereas before the disaster Japan had obtained only 30% of its power from this source. In a nation in which the majority of nuclear plants are decades old, this makes France vulnerable if system failures are found. In addition, the problem of how to manage the long-term storage of nuclear waste remains as irreconcilable as ever, as the bleak situation at the Sellafield nuclear power station in Great Britain makes clear.
Of course, all nations are vulnerable to nuclear disaster, but what would happen if it was not a single nuclear plant that suffered a meltdown, but rather large numbers of them at the same time? Sounds like science fiction? It’s worth reading Richard Schiffman’s article “America’s nuclear safety under scrutiny after Oyster Creek’s Sandy Alert,” which was published in the Guardian. The most horrifying quote in the article was this:
“A 2011 study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory warns that a massive solar storm could knock out electricity in some areas for weeks, overwhelming the capacity of many nuclear plants to keep their critical cooling systems operational. But nuclear regulators have not required power plants to guard against the risk of solar storms. David Lochbaum, the director of UCS’s nuclear safety project told me in an email interview that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses plants `using the rearview mirror’. It looks to the past, in other words, to assess future risks.”
Such a massive solar storm has happened before, as was the case with the “Carrington Event” of 1859. The storm was so large that the northern lights were visible in the Caribbean. Recent scientific studies suggest that such extreme storms happen once every five hundred years. Such an event would knock out satellites, fry modern electronics, and destroy power transformers, knocking out electricity for long stretches of time. Ironically, nuclear power plans rely on electricity, which was the problem at Fukushima, as the tsunumi knocked out the backup power for the reactors’ cooling systems. According to a 2008 report by the National Research Council a similarly sized event today could cause two trillion dollars in damage globally.
Shiffman’s article also describes how the Nuclear Regulatory Agency has sought to conceal the risks of nuclear disaster at the Oconee plant in South Carolina, as well as the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska. So France’s efforts to conceal nuclear dangers would seem to be part of a multi-national pattern. In November 2013 the Oconee nuclear plant had to be closed due to a leak in a containment building. This facility has had more safety violations than any other nuclear power plant in the South East since the millennium. The Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant was closed for nearly three years after serious safety issues (there were 450 “concerns”) at the plant. Perhaps no citizenry would accept nuclear power if they fully understood the risks.
Globally, there are common problems associated with the nuclear energy industry: regulators at risk of being captured by the industry they oversee, governments concealing upsetting information from citizens, and unforeseen risks of systemic failure. The problem of nuclear waste disposal remains unresolved, while there have not been adequate preparations for extreme events such as a solar storm. Meanwhile, the news out of Fukushima continues to be grim.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University