Explosion following cooling system failure at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

Explosion following cooling system failure at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP/Ho/NHK

With the ongoing problems following Japan’s earthquake and tsunami at the country’s affected nuclear power reactors, pundits are asking what effect, if any, this will have on US nuclear power production.

It’s too early to tell, of course, but certainly, given the American public’s traditional unease with nuclear power to begin with, Japan’s woes can’t help. Since Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown in 1979, proponents of nuclear energy have fought an uphill battle to convince the public that nukes are a good thing.

In the last few years, with rewed concerned about the environmental effects of carbon in the atmosphere from fossil-fuel-burning power plants, nukes, or at least the idea of of them, have enjoyed a resurgence. Even some environmentalists have gotten on the nuke bandwagon. Not long ago, I spoke on a panel with Stuart Brand of Whole Earth Catelogue fame. Brand has become convinced that the dangers of nuclear power are overstated, and are far outweighed by the danger of not using them.

The fact is, no other source of power can yet come close to easing our reliance on fossil fuels for generating electricity. Wind and solar, for example, are intermittent generators of power that, in the absence of an as-of-yet-nonexistent grid energy storage solution, can only supplement main power supplies when the sun happens to be shining or the wind blowing.

And yet, as the Japanese nuclear crisis underscores, nukes don’t come free. In Japan, as in the US, no long term storage exists for storing spent fuel that remains radioactive long after its removal from the power plant. For now, spent fuel is stored in water tanks beside the reactors. They and the fuel still being used must be constantly cooled with circulating water. When power to the water pumps fails—as it did when first the earthquake knocked out main power, and then the tsunami wiped out backup diesel generators and then backup backup batteries quickly ran down—the water pumps stop, and the fuel begins to melt, releasing radioactive material into the environment.

This actively cooled design is the same one used in nuke plants in the US. That and the storage problem has made me question the wisdom of relying on nuclear power since first learned of the need for active cooling for nuke plants back in high school.

But is active cooling really necessary? In an intriguing piece of commentary this week (see “The Search for a Better, Safer Nuclear Power“), Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal points out that today’s designs were rushed into service and became the de facto standard while other, possibly safer designs languished. Madrigal points to updated designs now on the drawing boards based on some of those earlier designs. Says Madrigal:

With the Fukushima plant’s problems putting safety back at the forefront of Americans’ minds, these new reactors could be the only real way forward for nuclear power, if the globe’s citizens decide they want that future. Many engineers think they’re safer. For example, they incorporate “passive” safety features instead of the active pumping systems that failed at Fukushima.

For a true risk analysis to be made, one also has to take in to account the dangers of more traditional energy production. In an interview with IEEE Spectrum‘s Steven Cherry (listen to “The Future of Nuclear Power“), former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Frank von Hippel points out that some 20,000 people die in the US every year from inhaling particles emitted by coal-fired power plants.