Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"The true costs of nuclear power are never reflected even in the very high price of plant construction" (Anne Applebuam)


A photo from earlier today of explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, presumably already out of date. WaPo bulletin at 6:13:27pm EDT: "Japanese officials say fire has broken out again at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The blaze erupted early Wednesday local time in the outer housing of the reactor’s containment vessel, utility officials said. Firefighters are trying to put out the flames."

"Increasingly, nuclear power is also promoted because it is safe. Which it is -- except, of course, when it is not. Chances of a major disaster are tiny, one in a hundred million. But in the event of a statistically improbable major disaster, the damage could include, say, the destruction of a city or the poisoning of a country. . . . [A]s we are about to learn in Japan, the true costs of nuclear power are never reflected even in the very high price of plant construction."
-- Anne Applebaum, in her WaPo column today,
"If the Japanese can’t build a safe reactor, who can?"

by Ken

I had a feeling I couldn't be the only who's been thinking, as the Japanese nuclear disaster has unfolded on top of the natural disaster, something along the lines of the head on Anne Applebaum's WaPo column today.

If the Japanese can’t build a safe reactor, who can?

These are the Japanese, after all. They don't cut corners when it comes to serious stuff like earthquake preparedness, unlike Americans, who in recent decades have decided that anything our lazy, shiftless, thieving, murdering corporate masters do in the name of extracting more loot from the American economy is just dandy, thank you. When there are consequences, well, it's just a cost of doing business. Like the fatiguingly regular incidence of mine explosions caused by mine owners' unflinching insistence that they don't have to follow no stinkin' laws. Government regulation is Devil-worshipping socialism. (That government regulation is responsible for a substantial portion of what we count as positive quality of life in this country doesn't matter because none of the Americans who've enlisted in the Zero IQ movement know enough about history or any other aspect of reality to have any awareness of what has gone on or goes on in the real world around them.)

Thanks to its built-in social strengths, Anne argues,
Japan will eventually recover. But at least one Japanese nuclear power complex will not. As I write, three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station appear to have lost their cooling capacity. Engineers are flooding the plant with seawater -- effectively destroying it -- and then letting off radioactive steam. There have been two explosions. The situation may worsen in the coming hours.

Yet Japan’s nuclear power stations were designed with the same care and precision as everything else in the country. More to the point, as the only country in the world to have experienced true nuclear catastrophe, Japan had an incentive to build well, as well as the capability, laws and regulations to do so. Which leads to an unavoidable question: If the competent and technologically brilliant Japanese can’t build a completely safe reactor, who can?

I think about the extraordinary combination of circumstances that created Japan's current nuclear peril and wonder how people can be so complacent where the possibility for such catastrophe is in the hands of people infinitely more thoughtless and corrupt. Have you noticed all the corporatist and corporatist-symp voices heard insisting that the current crisis should have no bearing on American plans for increased investment in nuclear power generating capacity?

Of course they're by and large the same voices that for decades have prevented the country from doing anything to reduce the known peril of our potentially catastrophic overreliance on fossile fuels. Remember "Big Dick" Cheney sneering at talk of conservation? I suppose it was natural enough, considering how totally a creature of the oil-and-gas industry he is. While we're in a deepening energy crisis, remember, they're making out like bandits, scoring profit levels beyond the imagining of even the greediest energy mogul.

Unfortunately those moguls have adapted principally by upwardly rescaling the greed threshold of their previously pretty greed-besotted imaginations. And why not? Every energy-related disaster for the rest of us is a bonanza for them. The situation in Libya puts the lives of all those suffering Libyans at risk and causes a worldwide jolt in the price of oil? Ka-ching! While we dig ever deeper in our already-bare pockets, they try to find space to stockpile their latest windfall.

Years ago I had a conversation, which I've been careful never to repeat, with a European friend who had limitless contempt for weak-kneed Americans foolishly failing to embrace the panacea of nuclear power. How do you explain that the risks of well-designed nuclear plants may be small, but given these stakes, we haven't discovered a level of risk that's small enough.

As Anne points out, there are in fact people working on making nuclear plants safer. But every added measure of safety will come at an increasingly steep price, and we have no reason to believe that even the highest price will protect us against all risk.
In an attempt to counter the latest worst-possible scenarios, a Franco-German company began constructing a super-safe, “next-generation” nuclear reactor in Finland several years ago. The plant was designed to withstand the impact of an airplane -- a post-Sept. 11 concern -- and includes a chamber allegedly able to contain a core meltdown. But it was also meant to cost $4 billion and to be completed in 2009. Instead, after numerous setbacks, it is still unfinished -- and may now cost $6 billion or more.

Ironically, the Finnish plant was meant to launch the renaissance of the nuclear power industry in Europe -- an industry that has, of late, enjoyed a renaissance around the world, thanks almost entirely to fears of climate change. Nuclear plants emit no carbon. As a result, nuclear plants, after a long, post-Chernobyl lull, have became fashionable again. Some 62 nuclear reactors are under construction at the moment, according to the World Nuclear Association; a further 158 are being planned and 324 others have been proposed.

When it comes to the potential of nuclear catastrophe, is there any level of risk that can be written off, like the deaths of all those miners, as unfortunate but just a cost of doing business?
Increasingly, nuclear power is also promoted because it is safe. Which it is -- except, of course, when it is not. Chances of a major disaster are tiny, one in a hundred million. But in the event of a statistically improbable major disaster, the damage could include, say, the destruction of a city or the poisoning of a country. The cost of such a potential catastrophe is partly reflected in the price of plant construction, and it partly explains the cost overruns in Finland: Nobody can risk the tiniest flaw in the concrete or the most minimal reduction in the quality of the steel.

But as we are about to learn in Japan, the true costs of nuclear power are never reflected even in the very high price of plant construction. Inevitably, the enormous costs of nuclear waste disposal fall to taxpayers, not the nuclear industry. The costs of cleanup, even in the wake of a relatively small accident, are eventually borne by government, too. Health-care costs will also be paid by society at large, one way or another. If there is true nuclear catastrophe in Japan, the entire world will pay the price.

Right now Americans are especially inapt at seeing the true cost of irresponsible behavior, rather as if we've become a nation of seven-year-olds. Or, rather, a nation of seven-year-olds slaving for corporate masters who accept none of the risk or responsibility for their blundering and criminality, but cheerfully pocket 99-plus percent of the rewards.

UPDATE: Debra Bowen Responds To Ken

Blue America endorsed congressional candidate, currently California's wildly popular Secretary of State, Debra Bowen responded to Ken on my Facebook page. I'm sure she won't mind if we share her thoughts:
We have never included the full cost of insurance, because the potential damages if there is an accident are astronomical and would make nuclear power uncompetitive.

My two cents on accidents: humans design and build all complex systems, and our imperfections sometimes result in imperfect design and/or execution. (Think about software.)

And we miss some risks because they are unimaginable at the beginning, even if they seem obvious later. Technology changes; or we learn more about geology.

It seems no one thought about what could happen if backup power supply failed.

So the question is not simply what are the risks - but what are the potential consequences of error? (I'll leave sabotage out because the consequences of error alone are so awful.)

Food for thought, I hope.

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At 2:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in the sixties when I was studying for a degree in physics, I traveled to the New York World's Fair. It was a great experience. Exhibits like GM's City of the Future were very impressive. There was also an exhibit of Atoms for Peace, the Eisenhower Administration and Atomic Energy Commission's attempt to promote the spread of "peaceful" nuclear power around the world. I had met an old high school friend at the NYWF and we had a great time walking around to see the exhibits. At the Atoms for Peace exhibit, I recall expressing much skepticism about whether it was the great hope of the future for limitless cheap power for humanity as they were portraying it. After graduation and some graduate work, I had a chance to join the Livermore Laboratory and work on their nuclear projects. But having worked at a Navy Laboratory near Washington in previous summers, I chose to pursue work with the Navy in San Diego. I am glad I made this decision because though I dropped out after 5 years, I learned a lot about the field of electronics. With my background and dislike of nuclear war (this was the time of the Linus Pauling crusade to end above ground testing of nuclear bombs), I am glad I did not go to LNL, despite its prestige. Over the years I watched the Japanese nuclear industry become one of the largest in the world despite the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the so-called "nuclear allergy" after WW II. Now with the tragedy of Fukushima Daiichi and the decision of PM Naoto Kan to change direction away from nuclear power to non-toxic renewable sources of energy, I hope Japan is finally making the right decisions on its energy future.


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