March 25, 2011

"Going nuclear"

Surry Nuclear Power Reactors, Viirginia
No one can yet define the "worst case scenario" in the continuing disaster in Japan. But our hearts go out to those facing not only the effects of the earthquake and tsunami, but the radiation escaping from the vulnerable nuclear power plants. No one yet knows the extent of that radiation, but yesterday's warning from the Japanese government to limit drinking water to infants was a wakeup call to many and today's announcement that the government will assist those evacuating the area within 20 miles shows the uncertainties facing those near the six reactors at Fukushima.

We do know that radiation can take years to do its damage. One study just released showed that those who drank contaminated milk after the 1986 Chernobyl accident still suffer from an increased risk of thyroid cancer.

Thanks to media coverage, we also understand that the "spent" nuclear fuel is really NOT spent and that there is four times as much radioactive material in those storage pools in which the rods must be submerged than in the reactors. Plus permanently storing this nuclear "waste" continues to elude us.

Meanwhile, as we debate the safety of nuclear power plants, engineers are building a radically different type of reactor in China that may offer a safer nuclear technology when they are operational in 4 years. These Chinese reactors will use hundreds of thousands of billiard-ball-size nuclear fuel elements, each covered in a protective layer of graphite that can  dissipate heat on their own, even if coolant is lost. The U.S., South Africa, and Germany have experimented with this "pebble-bed reactor" technology but deemed it to have technical problems, not to mention a lack of financing. Wall Street has not been behind the interest in a "nuclear renaissance" that President Obama has supported. Nuclear plants are VERY expensive. And our recent economy has not been condusive to innovative ventures.

The Chinese government, however, paid for the R&D and 30 percent of the construction of these two new pebble-bed reactors and still plans to build as many as 50 nuclear reactors, most of the conventional design, over the next 5 years (NY Times).

The Natural Resources Defense Council folks say that pebble-bed reactors would probably be less dangerous than current nuclear plants, and might be better for the environment than coal-fired plants. But Greenpeace opposes pebble-bed reactors, and questions the safety of any nuclear technology.

Whether nuclear power will remain part of our "power mix" remains to be seen. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 put a halt to new nuclear power plant construction in the U.S. Virginia's Surry Nuclear Power Plant's Unit 1 began commercial operation in December 1972 and Unit 2 began operating in May 1973.

Chinese safety regulations require that all nuclear plants be located at least 30 miles from the nearest city. Many Americans, including this blogger, live much closer to a nuclear power plant than this. "Hmmmm."