By Pankaj Arora
When you’re sitting on an archipelago with more than 100 volcanoes and a unique cross-section of tectonic plates underneath, the 54 odd nuclear reactors, the possibility of disaster starts to look like a “when” rather than an “if.”
The 40 year old Fukushima reactor was built in the 1970s, when Japan’s first wave of nuclear construction began. Since the power back up failed in the disaster international attention has been drawn to nuclear energy and its designation as a clean fuel.
Tens of thousands of people in Germany formed a human chain recently to demonstrate their fear of and opposition to the nuclear power. The protesters urged the state to learn from the Japanese disaster and reconsider nuclear.
Prior to the earthquake in Japan, a nuclear renaissance was emerging worldwide. Now more than ever, nervous consumers will demand increased safety standards, more rigorous planning, careful checklists and increased transparency in the whole nuclear political system.
Planning for safe nuclear energy
There are 3 major challenges to be overcome with nuclear power:
- Problem of nuclear waste disposal and recycling
- Radiation hazard
- High cost and high capacity installation over long time frame
Good strategic planning raises awareness about potential threats and opportunities. Many feel that it is still a clean, safe and cheap way to supply energy with a relatively good track record – only 3 major accidents over 14,000 reactor hours of experience in 32 countries – 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. TheWorld Nuclear Association) tells us that one was contained without harm to anyone, the next involved intense fire without provision for containment and the third severely tested the limits of containment. The Association also lays out an approach of Prevention, Monitoring and Action – which works best with high quality design and construction.
Stewart Brand, a long standing proponent of nuclear power called nuclear a ‘design problem’ which can be fixed. He says, “Radiation that looks like a great evil in basically a design problem. Nuclear provides a clean base load electricity that produces waste just a size of a coke can as compared to a coal fired plant that belches out 16,000 tons/year of CO2 emission for the same power supply. It needs to be made safer so that each state, each province can run its own modular and thorium power plants that can be carried on trucks, require no refueling and can be run for 60 years and then be buried in their own grave.”
Dr. James Hansen, Director at NASA Goddard Institute of Space studies, the most popular pro-nuclear advocate, in an interview with the Bigthink website, proposes that renewable energy is still very expensive and doesn’t provide consistent base load energy. The current second generation nuclear plants have technical problems that third and fourth generation reactor designs can overcome – like the full use of nuclear waste – but such designs will come in the next 10-12 years.
Proper planning with advanced design of nuclear reactors is what is needed to move ahead with the nuclear agenda.
Nuclear security is the most essential element of safe nuclear. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear security plan can be achieved through “prevention, detection of and response to malicious acts, and Information coordination and analysis.
Proper nuclear security protocol will include:
- Potential hazard to the local community. Choosing appropriate geological locations to construct the power plants.
- Strong Regulatory infrastructure to promote harmonized safety standards
- Total cost of the reactor – including the CO2 emissions released in the initial construction
- Total time taken to build the reactor
- Installed capacity to be high as only then the costs can be justified
- Involvement of all stakeholders – Electric power companies, local and central government, scientific community, banks and general public
- Nuclear waste – either to be buried in deep saline formations or be recycled back into the reactor as currently done by France and Japan
- Security and terrorism
The Fukushima incident has called for increased transparency in the public and private sector, as the plant’s operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) received severe scrutiny from the international community because of the problems at the reactor.
Conflicting views prevail in the mainstream – on one end of spectrum are people like James Hansen, Stewart Brand, The World Nuclear Association and on the other are people like Al Gore who brought mass awareness to the world about global warming and activists like The Greenpeace opposing nuclear as dirty, expensive, unsafe and a threat to world peace. This presents a confusing picture to the masses.
The risks of a nuclear blow out are immense and can’t be discounted. The dangerous, risky and the poisonous effects can last forever. Even Japan’s Fukushima incident hasn’t done much to stall other countries’ expansion of nuclear power. The International Herald Tribune stated that – China has 11 operational reactors and 10 new ones in the making, and India has 20 current and plans to build dozens in the future – and so are countries like Italy, Russia, Czech Republic, and middle-eastern countries like UAE, Jordan, Bahrain also sticking to their nuclear energy policies. About 3/4th of France, 1/3rd of Japan and 1/5th of US is powered by nuclear power. Even Japan plans to move ahead with its 60% goal of going nuclear in the coming years.
Nuclear energy is one step up from the fossil fuels – at least you know your hazard in nuclear reactors – coal plants externalizes the emissions on the society. The world is heading to nuclear, no doubt – the question is how good can we get on our designs and transparency system that can act as transitionary technology leading into the world of sun and wind. If the right parties sit at the discussion table with a set of appropriate checklists and common goals, which will bring higher transparency, accidents and radiation hazards, can be controlled, thus touting its claim as a clean, sustainable energy source of the future.
Pankaj Arora blogs at http://environz.org/ and is passionate about sustainability and believes that however we may call it, one thing is a given – it’s huge and it’s everywhere, slowly shaping our lives. He is also an Engineer and is studying MBA in Sustainable Management.