26 Dec 2011

The earthquake that struck Japan’s northeast coast on 11 March 2011 was one of the strongest ever recorded. The 9.0 magnitude event impacted an area with 11 nuclear reactors.

The earthquake that struck Japan’s northeast coast on 11 March 2011 was one of the strongest ever recorded. The 9.0 magnitude event impacted an area with 11 nuclear reactors. Even worse, the earthquake triggered a 46-foot high tsunami, knocking out the operating reactors’ backup diesel generators. Three of the 11 – at Fukushima Daiichi – ultimately experienced exposure of its radioactive fuel. The Japanese government ordered evacuations, urged people within 30 kilometres of the stricken reactors to remain indoors, and banned agricultural shipments from the immediate area.

Since the Fukushima event, nuclear power advocates have sought to reassure the global public that nuclear power is indeed safe and that it is the best energy solution to the problem of carbon emissions and climate change. In the United States, a series of fl oods, an earthquake, and a major hurricane during the summer of 2011 raised serious questions regarding the safety of nuclear power. In June, the Missouri River fl oods caused the shutdown of the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station in Nebraska. A fi re caused by a faulty electrical switch forced a partial evacuation of the facility and cooling of the reactor was interrupted for 90 minutes. Two weeks later, the accidental puncturing of a fl ood bern around the plant forced the switch to backup generators. Another pump fi re seriously injured a plant worker one week later. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gave the plant a “D” rating for its performance during and after the event.

On 23 August 2011, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake centred in Sterling, Virginia was felt at 13 nuclear reactor sites across the eastern United States. The North Anna, Virginia reactor suffered “shaking” in excess of what it was designed for, causing it to lose electricity and immediately shut down. On 27 August 2011, high winds caused siding to fly into the main transformer in a Maryland nuclear plant and a New Jersey plant to go offl ine as a precaution. Also in August, Hurricane Irene knocked out one nuclear reactor and led to the voluntary shutdown of another.

Based on these events, many nations are questioning their nuclear future. Germany plans to abandon nuclear power by 2022. Even France, with its high commitment to nuclear power and excellent safety record, is studying its nuclear future for 2050 and beyond. In the United States, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is committed to block the re-licensing of two nuclear power plants at Indian Point, 25 miles north of New York City.

At the same time, more than 50 nuclear reactors are under construction around the world, from Russia to the United States. In Asia, India, South Korea, and China are building new nuclear plants—with 26 new reactors in China alone. And China is experimenting with new technologies such as “fast breeder” reactors and the low-cost “AP 1000” with its single wall containment structure. Given the recent deadly accidents related to construction problems in China’s new High Speed Rail and subway systems, safety in a large, experimental nuclear expansion certainly raised some red fl ags (pun intended).

The challenge for the world in moving away from nuclear power is fi nding clean, affordable and safe options that are ready to go. According to a recently released report of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), there are such options. Addressing specifi cally the possible retirement of Indian Point in New York, it suggests a four-point plan based on new energy efficiency measures; additional renewable capacity such as wind and solar power; expansion of transmission lines from centres of generation to population centres; and upgrading existing, older natural gas plants. The numbers are subject to debate, but it cannot be argued that we have no option but to maintain and expand our nuclear power generation capacity.

This is a risk management question for public officials and the people who elect them. Nuclear power is “clean”, and once the enormous capital costs are paid for (not a small issue), relatively cost-effective to operate. But the catastrophic risks are enormous. Chernobyl remains a wasteland, filled with radioactive wild animals three decades later. Estimates for the clean-up and compensation for Fukushima range between US$60 billion and US$100 billion. The NRDC estimates that the cost of a similar accident at Indian Point would be much higher, given the high value of industry, real estate and population density of the New York Metropolitan region.

We have options. Governments can use their regulatory powers to place a higher value on safety and a higher cost on accidents. Government can provide tax incentives to producers and consumers to seek out energy options, such as solar, geo-thermal, wind, and natural gas. And governments can reward energy companies that encourage conservation, effi cient appliances and consumer power generation. Our energy future is too important to leave to market forces.

William B. Eimicke is Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs and Executive Director of the Picker Center of Executive Education at Columbia University.