1.Accidents and population centers
Worldwide standard operating procedures at nuclear power plants offer little margin for safety errors, and the industry is scrambling to check safety at each station. But can it reliably prevent another accident? Accidents are difficult to predict and have immediate far-reaching consequences, compounded by the fact that most nuclear reactors are located near major population centers – Moscow, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Budapest, Kiev. It is nearly impossible to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people in a timely fashion, even with advance warning of several days – as hurricane Katrina demonstrated in New Orleans.
Officials at the Japanese nuclear plant did not think to have closed-circuit cameras inside the buildings to chart an accident for which they never fully planned. But we can be certain of the following. Officials belatedly warned surrounding residents of the danger to their lives, belatedly began to issue potassium iodide tablets to protect them, and belatedly expanded the evacuation zone around the station. Now at least 100,000 people have had to leave the area, and at least 100,000 more have been forced to live inside of sealed houses. At Chernobyl, as well, the authorities only ordered evacuation after a shocking delay.
Old reactors are dangerous
It is now standard practice to extend the life of reactors from their design parameters of 25 years to 40 years and longer. It seems foolish at best to take such a gamble on complex technology that operates under high temperature and pressure. Any “unlikely” loss of coolant-capacities may result in explosions, meltdown, and significant release of radioactivity into the environment.
No secure repository for spent fuel
Utilities and reactor operators still store spent fuel and other nuclear waste in and around reactors, since no truly secure, permanent repository has been built. In the US, 70,000 tons of spent fuel sits at 103 reactors around the country within 75 miles of 125 million people. In Russia, 50,000 tons of spent fuel remains at power stations.
Vulnerable to terrorism
Reactors around the world – 55 in Japan, 103 in the US, 40 in Russia, and so on – are also vulnerable to terrorism. For example, a National Academy of Sciences report in 2005 indicated that pools holding spent fuel stored at these reactors might not withstand a determined attack. The industry is now touting – and building – “floating” nuclear power stations that would operate on barges; clearly protection of these stations would be difficult.
Mother Nature's threat
As the nuclear crisis in Japan has shown, even the best-prepared facilities can neither predict nor withstand the most severe natural disasters. Exacerbating the inherent dangers of nuclear power, several plants have been built on active seismic faults: Diablo Canyon in California, Metsamor in Armenia, and Fukushima in Japan.
Diablo Canyon in California is designed to withstand a 7.5 magnitude quake, but experts have raised serious concerns – even before Japan’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami – that the plant’s safety would be threatened by a tsunami or high-magnitude earthquake.
The Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant in Armenia had to close abruptly in 1988 because of a devastating earthquake. It was restarted seven years later to cope with the country’s energy shortage, but has since been condemned by the European Union as deeply unsafe and vulnerable to accident.
Costs outweigh benefits
For fifty years, engineers have promised “too cheap to meter” energy, the construction of inherently safe reactors, and solution to waste disposal. Instead, a typical reactor, based on the experience of the advanced French industry, now costs a minimum of $6 billion. The Obama administration approved $54 billion in subsidies to the nuclear industry to jumpstart construction in the US.
Reactor costs do not include transmission, waste disposal, fuel costs, or the great costs of remediating such accidents as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima Daiichi. These billions of dollars will buy only more risk to the general population.
Renewable energies are safer, cheaper
With each accident – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi – the nuclear industry has followed the same pattern: hesitation to inform the public about the dangers as matters go from bad to worse followed by assertions that none of the world’s other reactors can face the same fate.
Yet none of these risks and dangers exist with other, renewable forms of energy – wind energy, solar energy – and conservation. If they are costly now in terms of power generation, they end up being less expensive and safer, while Fukushima Daiichi has already entered the lexicon of terrifying nuclear accidents.
Paul Josephson is chair of the history department at Colby College. A specialist on the former Soviet Union, he is the author of several books on large-scale science and technology including nuclear power.