16 March 2011

We need to abandon nuclear energy but only after a better option is discovered.

There is no question that we should give up on nuclear power when a better alternative comes along. Unfortunately, a better one has not appeared for the energy needs of our world and one could argue that nuclear fuel is better for the environment than the short and long term issues associated with coal and oil. As ugly as it sounds, the safety ramifications of nuclear power primarily hit the area where an accident would happen whereas the effects of coal and oil do not require an accident - they are impacting the entire planet every day we continue to use them.

The issue of radioactive waste is real but not nearly as dire as some may paint it. France has been using nuclear energy as their primary source (including selling it to other countries) for 40 years now and they have very little waste. The reason is that the cores are 95% recyclable so they re-use them again and again. Modern nuclear plant designs really have answers to all of the decades old concerns of environmental damage, whether it is human error, natural event or what to do with the bad stuff that is created in the process.

Still, the events in Japan underscore how dangerous this is, regardless of the safety systems in place. Statements that "this will never be a Chernobyl" are being laughed at by some because they could easily argue that it could be a very slow developing Chernobyl. Statements that "wow, it withstood an earthquake much larger than it was designed to but they just didn't plan for the tsunami" are equally unhelpful because this is Japan -- a major earthquake always has a tsunami in tow (they invented the word, folks) and they did plan for a tsunami in their earthquake preparation. The bottom line is that the plant did not withstand all of the elements involved in an earthquake that large and trying to separate the two events is perhaps not as helpful as it may seem. (That said, all of the people working to fix the issue in Japan are heroes in my book.)

What we have learned is that building a nuclear power plant on the Ring of Fire is dangerous and you need the best safety designs imaginable. We need to recognize that we cannot know what we do not know and plan for that. Plants older than 30 years (yes, making up a number) probably need to be retired - not because they are too old to work, but because newer technology has made their safety worthiness obsolete. We are not infallible and our road map needs to account for that.

We do need to build more nuclear power plants to replace our dependence on coal while simultaneously investing in other green technologies - but we need to learn the lessons from this event to make certain it is never repeated.

Google Maps View of Fukushima Nuclear Plant Before Accident
Is it possible to build a disaster-proof nuclear power plant?
U.S. calls radiation 'Extremely High'
Design of G.E.'s Mark 1 Nuclear Reactors Show Weaknesses