Abandoned buildings, twisted debris, and silent streets depict what used to be a lively city in northern Japan. There are no cleanup efforts underway here because it is too dangerous – March 11, 2012 marks one year since a massive earthquake and ensuing tsunami triggered a devastating nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor complex. Multiple meltdowns and explosions spewed high-level radioactive waste into the environment, forcing more than 100,000 people to be evacuated and demonstrating once again that nuclear accidents result in displaced communities, contaminated food, health problems, and renewed skepticism over domestic energy policy.
Here in the U.S., nuclear power has been both criticized as a flawed endeavor and hailed as a carbon-free solution to meeting electrical demand. While the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania paralyzed the nuclear industry for the next three decades, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency in charge of nearly all things atomic, is moving forward with plans to build new nuclear reactors in the southeastern U.S.
In early February, the NRC approved a construction license for two Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors, the first approval given in more than 30 years, stating that the AP1000 reactor design “includes passive safety features that would cool down the reactor after an accident without the need for human intervention.” With this announcement, the construction of the AP1000 reactors continued as planned –construction of the reactors actually began prior to the NRC’s complete approval. As you can imagine, the NRC’s decision was anxiously awaited and well received by the nuclear industry.
The unusual thing about the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design, as David Biello mentions in his February 9th article in Scientific American, is that the reactor employs a “novel design.” What he is referring to is a variety of passive cooling systems that are designed to continuously cool the reactor core in the event of a sustained power failure. The ironic thing about certain nuclear power plants, such as the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi plant, is that although they produce electricity, they also require electricity to run their secondary safety systems. Thus, this “novel design” is essentially a 21st Century upgrade to 20th Century technology.
A quick phone call to the NRC Region II office, however, confirmed an underlying suspicion: no AP1000 nuclear plant has ever been built, which means that the “novel design” has never really been tested, which means that no one really knows for sure how the reactor and its complex systems will respond under real-world conditions.
Now, I am no civil engineer, but if I were, I would have the authority to write something similar to what civil engineering professor and prolific author Henry Petroski wrote in his 1995 book Design Paradigms.
“Indeed, the history of engineering is full of examples of dramatic failures that were once considered confident extrapolations of successful designs; it was the failures that ultimately revealed the latent flaws in design logic that were initially masked by large factors of safety and a design conservatism that became relaxed with time.”
But I am not a civil engineer, so I will not write anything like that. All I will say is this: believe it or not, while your eyes are moving across this grey and black page, men and machines are slowly piecing together the concrete and steel of four (two in Georgia and two in South Carolina) more-or-less experimental nuclear reactors, within one year of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters.
The construction is justified by the fact that the new nuclear reactors are being built to replace aging facilities. Just as Baby Boomers retire in droves over the coming years, so too will the vast majority of the nation’s existing nuclear power plants. According to the NRC, more than 50 reactors will reach the end of their federally licensed operational lifetime between now and 2020. While one option for an elderly plant is permanent decommissioning, plant operators can apply for an extension of the operating license, which would allow the plant to operate for another fixed number of years. The NRC has readily extended operating licenses of nuclear power plants for another decade or so, which keeps the juice flowing and maximizes profit from the plant, but puts additional stress on an aged system. At some point, nuclear power plants must be permanently shut down, at an estimated cost of between $300 and 500 million dollars per reactor.
To complicate matters even further, the Obama administration has terminated plans to store spent nuclear fuel from our nation’s 104 nuclear reactors in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. For many years, this plan was strongly criticized by environmental groups as well as local governments, but remained the federal government’s best bet for finding a storage solution that would attempt to isolate the high-level radioactive waste for the next 10,000 years. After undergoing fission, nuclear fuel becomes extremely hazardous and must be isolated from the environment for virtually forever.
It turns out it is much easier to produce tremendous amounts of this waste than to find a suitable location for it. And with no long-term storage solution, the vast majority of the high-level nuclear waste continues to sit in large cooling pools at the reactor site, where water circulates to ensure the spent fuel rods do not overheat. This is temporary at best, and brings to light an unsettling realization – despite having nowhere to store the tens of thousands of tons of extremely radioactive nuclear waste, nuclear engineers and scientists are continuing to build new nuclear power plants, perhaps hoping (or not) that someone, someday, will find a place to store the waste.
What all these issues boil down to is this: we, as a nation, face two daunting questions when it comes to energy policy. How will we power our energy intensive society, the most energy consumptive society on earth, in the next 10, 20, 30 years? And what the heck are we going to do with all this radioactive waste?
In light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, our current nuclear power plants should be decommissioned as soon as possible. The alternative would be to operate them longer, hoping that no earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes or human error cripple their safety systems.
Our nation’s lack of permanent waste storage solutions reveals the shortsighted agenda of the nuclear industry as well as the long-term problem of nuclear waste disposal. Despite a 21st Century upgrade to the design of nuclear reactors, this change remains a largely unproven technology that will undoubtedly result in unforeseen problems. Thus, it is essential that we resist the construction of new nuclear power plants and ensure that our aging plants are decommissioned safely, responsibly, and thoroughly. It is a ways away, but we could very well be on our way to exiting the Atomic Age.