Nuclear energy is currently on the ropes after the ongoing destruction of several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Both the United States and Japanese governments are reevaluating the safety of nuclear power plants. The European Union is calling for nuclear plant stress tests. So the question really becomes, what risks are we willing to take when it comes to nuclear power?
Nuclear engineer Michael Golay of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked essentially the same thing in a recent Scientific American article. His question was, “What risk are you willing to tolerate?" So what risks are we willing to tolerate? Where does our need for “clean” electricity end and our concerns for safety begin?
The Scientific American article called it a balancing act between costs and safety. According to the article, the newest nuclear reactors now under construction at the Vogtle Plant near Augusta, Georgia, are Westinghouse AP1000 design models. These reactors have “passive” safety features that would kick in when all else failed.
These passive features include:
A pool of “cooling water sitt[ing] above the reactor core and, in the event of a potential meltdown like at Fukushima Daiichi or Three Mile Island in Pa., will, with the opening of a heat-sensitive valve, simply flow water into the reactor, dousing the meltdown.”
Further, although the thick steel vessel containing the nuclear reactor is encased in a further shell of 1.2-meter-thick concrete, that shell is surrounded by a building that is open to the sky. Should the concrete containment vessel begin to heat up during a meltdown, natural convection would pull in cooling air.
Two observations that can be made are: One, with the amount of water that has been and is still being poured on the blown Daiichi reactors, can any amount of water stored over the reactor core be enough? Two, the open sky design will only facilitate the release of radioactive material into the air if the inner containment vessel blows up. Granted the inner containment vessel uses thicker steel and concrete than those at Daiichi.
Some points to consider in this balancing act are that the Daiichi plants were at least 40 years old and didn’t contain the safety features found in todays designs and no one could have predicted the duel disasters that befell the plant.
As we learned with the Christ Church earthquake in February, not all quake prone faults are known. So even though we don’t think that nuclear reactors sit on fault lines, it may indeed be sitting in an area overdue for a sizeable earthquake. Even without that possibility (lets face it that is a really remote possibility) there are other unforeseen situations that could occur. Can I name them? Well if I could they wouldn’t be unforeseen. Am I being an alarmist? Maybe. But it seems to be the unexpected that causes the problems.
If the balancing is really between safety and costs than we need to take another look at costs. Back in November of 2009, Green covered some of the issues with nuclear reactor costs and safety. The upshot was that projects underway in Finland and France were experiencing problems with construction. Materials being used were substandard in efforts to control building costs but resulted in the need to completely redo the work with proper materials costing much more than initially budgeted.
Along with the building issues of those projects in 2009, there was also the issue of cost overruns with previous nuclear projects within the United States. For example, originally four reactors at Vogtle were expected to cost $660 million instead only two were built because the costs had skyrocketed. From $660 million for four, they wound up building only two reactors at a cost of $8.87 billion. In the end it is the consumers who pay for those cost overruns in the price of electricity and even see rate hikes during initial construction.
There are what may be safer designs out there like the AP1000 and NuScale’s modular design small light water reactors. Both of them take into account the possible loss of power from the grid, diesel generators and batteries. The first as described above, has a reserve pool of water and convection cooling. The later small reactors don’t require pumps for sending cooling water through the reactors. Instead it relies on a convection water cooling system. Both if built correctly would avoid the problems that Daiichi’s reactors have faced.
Nuclear power plants are run for profit. As such, the owners and operators want to minimize costs as much as possible. Minimizing costs can lead to such issues as inferior building products and designs, as well as poor oversight and safety violations. Prior to the problems at the Diaiichi plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), had been accused of covering up safety violations and lax plant oversight. It’s dishonesty has been attested to by a previous employee. Unfortunately, this lack of honesty and lack of regard for safety exists throughout the industry worldwide.
So what risks are we willing to accept and what costs? Cost cutting and massive overruns have been the norm in the past, why do we expect it to change now? This past February, Vogtle was sited with numerous violations including safety and oversight violations at reactors three and four which are the new ones.
Added to the safety and health risks inherent in nuclear materials and power plants, Congress has been proposing cuts to regulations and funds for oversight in a number of departments like the EPA and Agriculture. The current makeup of our national legislature has already proven itself to be aggressively pro business with its legislation to cut funds for enforcement of EPA regulations and Agricultural inspections of such commodities as meat.
Without strong regulations, regular inspections and enforcement, the risks of a nuclear disaster increase dramatically. If we are to accept the risks and costs as outlined above, we cannot do so without a strong regulatory agency with the power and money to make sure that the risks to workers and others are minimized as much as possible.