Monday, March 14, 2011

Finding the energy to do it right.

The severity of the earthquake tsunami catastrophe that struck Japan last Friday is just now being absorbed, in bits and pieces of anecdotal commentary. The idea that they were able to rescue a man from the rooftop of his home some 15 km at sea is an indication of the power of the tsunami and his own good fortune. Those of us with friends or relatives (my wife Rumiko's entire family) in Japan can only worry if they were in the north or breathe a silent sigh of relief if, as with Rumiko's family, they are all in the Tokyo or Osaka areas.

Still, the horror of this event is unfolding as we watch not only the search, rescue and recovery efforts, but also the effort to prevent a complete nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plants. The facilities there suffered major damage and were not able to maintain cooling. In a final effort to prevent a Chernobyl scale event, the operators have been pumping large volumes of sea water on to the reactors to cool them, but in doing so have rendered these facilities permanently unusable.

It is inevitable that the United States must re-examine it's own posture regarding not only the future of nuclear power, but also the management of the 104 nuclear power plants already operating here. Perhaps the best assessment that I have seen, and every news source has given at least one, is the one that Joe Romm and Richard C produced for CNN. The sober assessment is that "The U.S. government and nuclear industry must take new actions to ensure that nuclear power is safe for the American public."

Four of the 104 nuclear power plants in the US are located in California. Most of the attention has been given to the 2 reactors at Diablo Canyon. It is right on the coast and was constructed with full knowledge that it was close to 3 active faults including the San Andreas fault. Recently, a 4th fault has been discovered under the ocean just off the Diablo Canyon site. There is risk. No one denies this, but we have always been told that the risks are know, have been quantified, and that the Diablo Canyon plants have been designed to be able to withstand such a risk.

The lesson that I take from Fukushima is that we are not really good at quantifying risk. There is too much pressure to down play risk so as to not panic a public with scant technical knowledge and many fears.

The Green Party, and especially the Green Party of California has always taken an anti-nuclear stance. Some of the opposition is merely emotional, but mostly it is based on a sober risk assessment and the knowledge that there are better alternatives which can meet our energy needs. As Romm noted in the item linked above, the one time cost advantage for nuclear is no longer true.

I don’t think that we have yet absorbed the lessons of Fukushima. There is a hubris, sometimes nationalistic, that allows us to say that we have planned for all contingencies. If you listen to those who talk about Diablo Canyon site this week, they make the point that it was over designed to withstand the largest possible quake on the nearby faults. The same was said about Fukushima, and yet we did not truly understand just how great a quake was possible there.

The other lesson that we should learn, but again one that no one is talking about, is that there is a risk in putting so much emphasis on large scale, single site capabilities. Yes, it may be economic when all is well, but the economic consequences are very bad when all is not well. The argument for a distributed system with multiple generation technologies: solar, wind, wave, co-generation, etc. makes the system much less prone to the effects of the loss of a single site. This would make the United State more secure. It would make the US economy more robust and better able to absorb shocks, whether from single site failure or from conflict fed spikes in the prices for Middle East Oil.

And, just as importantly, the economics of nuclear have never considered the health effects of the entire process system from mining to transportation to processing to the storage of nuclear waste. At each step, we need to understand the long range effects before we commit to increased nuclear power plants, and the users of that technology should bear the cost.

It is also clear that all efforts to analyze the situation in Japan and to develop a sound US policy for the future will be met with equally political diatribes. Just read the comments to Chris Mooney's question: Are Liberals Science Deniers: Now is a good time to find out.

Follow the science for then entire process system. That is what the science of ecology tells us to do. Follow the economics that the science says is true. I don’t think that you will end up supporting nuclear or coal or any other fossil fuel.

More than any other


Alex Walker said...


You beat me to the punch. I was going to blog on this, myself. I cannot think of another issue where our distinct Green perspective is more critical. I have a technical background myself, as do many other Greens. A knowledge of the science and engineering behind this stuff makes a thinking moral person, if anything, more humble about America's Great Technocracy.

Hajja Romi said...

The native Americans knew how bad uranium is, and left it in the ground. Would that we had their wisdom!

Wes said...

Haija, that is very true. Dr. Stefanie Raymond-Whish did her doctorate work (at NAU) studying the effect of uranium on Navajo women. Remember, uranium is a risk for reasons other than being radioactive. It is an estrogen mimic that causes breast cancer.