The great event of the nuclear calendar for 2011 was the earthquake and tsunami that hammered three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
If you are a nuclear power believer, these sturdy old machines proved their mettle. They withstood all that nature could throw at them; although terrible damage resulted from the loss of external power and the swamping of the emergency diesel generators. The result was core melting and trouble in the used fuel storage pools.
If you are doubtful about nuclear power, or you are simply a political opportunist, this event was the final nail in the coffin, the proof that the end had arrived. For you, it provided more evidence that nuclear power is inherently unsafe and that its use, as American scientist Alvin Weinberg once said, is a Faustian bargain. (It was a remark that Weinberg wished he had not made and which his staff and supporters tried to justify by explaining that in the German legend, Faust finally gets his soul back, having foolishly pledged it to the devil.)
Such nonsense aside, the extraordinary thing about Fukushima is that although almost 25,000 Japanese died as the result of the earthquake and tsunami, no one died directly from the nuclear accident or from the release of radioactivity. The buildings and containment structures survived as they were designed to 40 years ago. This, despite a wall of water 45 feet high with incalculable force.
Each year, thousands of people are killed in coal mine accidents around the world. In 2010, 2,433 people were killed in China’s mines, the world’s deadliest.
Yet it was nuclear that had the world holding its breath. As with all accidents or even incidents, nuclear is held to a standard of safety orders of magnitude stricter than is applied to any other industrial activity, including other big energy undertakings, like oil refining, chemical production and transportation, and aviation.
The suspicion that falls upon nuclear technology is not only unfair – it is uneven.
The peace has been kept for five decades by the U.S. nuclear navy. In home waters and ports, nuclear ships and submarines sail without criticism.
Even the two organizations which appear to make their livings from relentless attacks on nuclear, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, have not dared to attack the nuclear navy. They do not protest, say, the USS Enterprise, when the great aircraft carrier sails blithely into domestic ports with eight reactors at work.
No one raises issues of waste, terrorist attacks or the consequences of military action. Those who make a living out of opposing nuclear power do not have the temerity to go after nuclear propulsion in warships. The public would not tolerate the disarmament that that would entail.
So the opponents go after nuclear’s soft underbelly: civilian power. It is hard to imagine that it is more dangerous to operate a nuclear facility built to be safe on land than one built for war-fighting on the high seas and in ports and harbors.
There are times in history when triumph is recorded as failure. The British and the Prussians finished off Napoleon in the Belgian town of Waterloo. But in the English Language, “Waterloo” — a British victory – is a synonym for catastrophic defeat. Americans believe the Tet Offensive was the turning point in the Vietnam War, even though the combined forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were roundly defeated by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.
Fukushima, a once-in-history accident, was a victory of design and construction for its time. Even the radiation releases are now found to be lower than expected, even those in the exclusion zone are surprisingly low. Despite eager attempts to find a surge in new cancers around the plant, none has shown up.
The lessons are to incorporate more passive features, better power supply and to protect the emergency generators. Newer designs already incorporate some of these features — and all will going forward. The industry has reacted with unusual alacrity in the past to new lessons, something uncommon across the broad range of industrial endeavor from aircraft to automobiles. As with aviation, nuclear safety is always a work in progress, a striving.
To my mind, after 40 years of chronicling nuclear power, the industry makes a mistake in rushing to advertise the safety of nuclear power plants. That way the seeds of doubt are sown.
Aircraft makers learned that lesson back in the 1930s. They learned that the trick was to shut up and do better.
If nuclear plants are unsafe, they should be closed down. Now. Today.
If not, their virtues should be trumpeted. Now. Today. Where are the trumpets? – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate