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How to Make Nuclear Energy Safe

3p Contributor | Tuesday April 5th, 2011 | 16 Comments

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
  • Decommissioning

Transparency

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.

What’s next

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.


▼▼▼      16 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Dr. Max Ward

    Ref: Stewart Brands comment “Modular Thorium power plants that can be delivered on trucks”
    I’m a retired scientist. (power generation industry)
    Thorium has been the neglected “Way of the Future” for over 50 years! Many Senators in the USA have died of old age while trying to lobby for Thorium funding.
    In Feb. 2010, China announced that it plans to mass-produce and export thorium LFTR units which will replace coal-fired boilers in existing electricity plants. This will result in a stunning direction shift in the “renewable energy” industries and the whole Carbon-Price debate! China will invest billions of dollars in this lucrative venture! They will be unstoppable. India, Russia & the USA are now developing in panic mode – but have already lost the race.
    A good article by the Vs20 group is.. “zero-carbon-electricity” at www vs2020.com

    • http://environz.org Pankaj Arora

      Dr Ward- Thanks for further info on Thorium reactors that you alluded to. Certainly some good ideas never take wings due to political nature of the game. Fully agree with you on China being unstoppable – but since its power needs are immense, it’s also building coal plants at a good enough pace. Interesting to see how China develops its energy system – as a model for other emerging economies – and perhaps the developed ones too.

      • skg

        India is not in panic mode. After 60 years of prototyping, India’s 3 stage cycle was successfully closed last year when the desired burn up rate was achieved in a stage 2 re-processor. India will commission the first commercial stage 2 re-processor by 2012 with the technology for Stage 1, 3 reactors well proven.

        China has a Thorium program?

        On a parallel track, India has already designed a unique reactor that combines Stage 1,2,3 technologies in a single reactor, life 100 yrs, numerous passive safety features, meant for export. It is currently in validation stage.

    • Rick

       Thorium is radioactive and more radioactivity is exactly what we do NOT need. And coal burning is pouring thousands of tons of mercury into the air every year. It looks pretty bad for the Earth and it’s passengers. Read more at FukushimaForum.info

  • Brian Lorentzen

    Hi Max. The China announcement was Feb 2011 (not 2010)
    To view the vast coverage of that announcement, Google.. ‘china thorium plans’.
    I don’t see any evidence that the US is responding to China’s challenge?
    India, Russia & Japan certainly are.
    It would be a reasonable GUESS that God-Father ‘Sandia’ would be responding. They did most of the early LFTR development at Oak Ridge in the 60s.

  • Carri

    Right now, we are between a rock and a hard place— where the probable and possibly best choice for energy in the US is nuclear energy, despite the recent crisis in Japan. What can the United States learn from Japan’s disaster? How can we prevent such a tragedy here?

    Check out “Nuclear Energy: Lessons from Japan”: http://bit.ly/e02awE

  • Jayanta

    Nice article. However your lead sentence should read “to look like an “when” rather than a “if.”…”

    • Pankaj Arora

      You’re right! The original article, however was submitted with ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’.
      Thanks.

    • Jen Boynton

      thanks for the catch, the article has been amended.

  • Michael Jones

    Regardless of any alternative energy future from fossil fuels, unless there is a drammatic reduction in the human population all will be in vain. The expectation that these will satisfy the demand is an illusion because the the hugh upfront material costs that will require the tradition energy mix to create.

    • http://environz.org Pankaj Arora

      The dialogue unfortunately always hinges around how to serve the needs of the growing population, how best to change the consumption patterns – consuming differently – which is in the interest of business community, but never on reducing the population or asking consumers to reduce the amounts they consume.

    • Rick

       You’re about to get a complete and permanent reduction in human population. Read more about it at FukushimaForum.info

  • mirage

    hello,i need some help with my assignment which is about how to overcome hurdless of nuclear energy..hope u can help me

  • Koontz 205

    We must get rid of Nuclear Power. NOT MAKE IT SAFE. There are no design flaws. There are greedy people trying to make a buck. Nuclear….
    1….NUCLEAR WASTE.
    2…There IS CARBON DIOXIDE released to RUN the plant.
    3….The COOLANT released into our WATERWAYS which kills everything in it’s path.
    Till this DAY no one knows HOW they are going to store the waste from the plants.
    NUCLEAR ENERGY is like selling milk door to door.
    It’s out of date and MUST GO!!!!!

    • Rick

       Radiation is building up and threatens all of us. Nuclear is not safe, not green, not profitable. The amount of radiation already in the environment is extremely high and Fukushima is adding huge amounts. Female humans have already lost fertility and now this. Read more at FukushimaForum.info

  • Rick

    More bull from nuclear proponents and mad scientists. We’re already at the tipping zone for mass extinction. No more nuclear. Read why at FukushimaForum.info