Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How safe are America's nuclear power stations?

The tragedy in Japan has been a wake up call to a lot of people.

Watching entire villages get swept away by the tsunami – leaving nothing where they once stood – is a dramatic reminder of how powerless people are in the fact of nature.

It's shocked a lot of us out of our Starbucks-slurping, suburban stupor and reminded us just how fragile everything we hold dear is.

Now, of course, Japan face another crisis – the possible meltdown of three of their nuclear reactors.

This comes just months after many Republicans and pundits – Militant Ginger included – were questioning America's 30-year moratorium on constructing 'safe, affordable' power plants which might finally lift us out of our current dependence on oil and coal (and resolve the 'brown outs' that are a perennial peril each and every summer.)

But the problems affecting Japan's nuclear power stations reveal the major weakness of every fission reactor – the need to keep the fuel rods cool to prevent them literally 'melting down' and releasing radioactive material.

There were no less than three standby pumps at the Fukushima station intended to keep water pumping through the core – but all three of those failed, and the Japanese government has since been reduced to pumping seawater through the core in order to try and cool it down.

It just shows how vulnerable and dangerous nuclear reactors can be – especially in the wake of natural disaster. In America, compounding that issue is the fact that our nuclear reactors are not built to the same standards as the Japanese ones now in the midst of crisis.

For example, if the reactors lose electrical power (as they did in Japan) there are batteries in place to keep pumping water through the core for hours afterwards. In Japan, they had eight hours of battery power – which turned out to be insufficient. In the United States, the standard is four.

Likewise, in America more than half of the 104 operating nuclear power plants don't even meet federal fire regulations (which led to a crisis in 1975, when a worker at Brown's Ferry Nuclear Power Plant used a candle to check on cable leaks - and set the plant on fire!) Federal regulators have still not forced the plant operators to bring their plants up to code.

And while many of America's nuclear power plants are not on fault lines, or in areas where a natural disaster similar to the Japanese earthquake could happen, there are other factors that need to be considered; and often aren't.

In Tennessee, for example, they're building two new reactors in Scottsboro – right in the path of potential Tennessee River flooding.

While it's true that nuclear power has had, relatively speaking, a stellar safety record over the years, the situation in Japan is a reminder than when things go wrong, they really go wrong – and hundreds of thousands of people could be impacted by the result.

Although a Chernobyl-style disaster is practically unthinkable, it's worth looking at the images of the 'Atom City' Prypiat, which remains abandoned to this day, to remind us of what could happen if we get too complacent about nuclear safety.

The Ukrainian City of Pripyat was abandoned in 1986, and remains so to this day


Susan said...

Read the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

Tom said...

One problem with these old-design plants was that they are based on reactors produced for ships - where space was at a premium. Newer reactors are passively safe, as they're large enough they don't need active cooling once they are shut down.

I don't want to minimize the severity of this - but it's important not to maximize it before the facts are in, either.

Roland Hulme said...

Susan - I haven't read the book, but I did see a TV show based on the concept - watching the work of man crumble after he is gone. Radiation is an amazing, terrifying thing - although that city in the Ukraine is apparently already a haven for animals who are coping with the radiation.

Tom - "but it's important not to maximize it before the facts are in, either." I wouldn't get much blogging done if I had to abide by your INHUMAN editorial guidelines! ;-)

Anonymous said...

The book was quite a bit more enjoyable than the TV show, imo. I don't know if they covered all the same points because I didn't watch all of the show, but the book was a good read.

In any case, I think the nuclear power story is more concerning from a short-term human safety point of view than a long-term environmental point of view. I don't know enough about nuclear power stations to add anything knowledgable though.

Roland Hulme said...

Hi Hortensio! I think you're right about the long term impact - I mean, that Ukrainian city is teeming with wildlife even now, when the radiation is still dangerously high. I'll have to read the book now.