MARCH 10, 2012 1:21PM

The Case for Nuclear Power on Fukushima Anniversary:U.S.Navy

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 For MEB, always.

It's not intended in any way to be mocking of the tragic deaths in Japan in the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, as other than the Great Kanto Quake of 1923, that was the worst natural disaster in the history of modern Japan, with over 20,000 Japanese killed.

Unfortunately, it is appropriate to talk about nuclear on that anniversary, because so many people will use that anniversary to try to strangle an industry that they always want dead; nuclear power.

Maybe its the link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons in people's minds that drives that result, in that because of nuclear weapons, everyone thinks that nuclear power must be bad too at some level, as everything nuclear is bad, again, because of the weapons noun following the nuclear adjective.

Fortunately, the U.S. Navy is proof that nuclear power is competitive  in certain demanding modes of operation with other more traditional fuel sources, amd without in and of itself being a weapon as such.

This is why nuclear power is used on all U.S. Navy submarines and the carriers too, and with zero serious accidents either, although there could be one some day, as life's intrinsically dangerous.

But the fact that the U.S. Navy has operated nuclear propulsions systems for fifty years with such a low failure rate is a demonstration that nuclear can be used effectively as a power source in the most demanding environment on Earth: hundreds of feet below the water.

Moreover, when you look at the main problems afflicting the nuclear power industry, none of the big three of them is technological in character, but political.

The first issue is that nuclear has not reached its cost potential as to savings  compared to other industries, as it is inordinately expensive to construct and operate nuclear facility compared to how it can be done.

That issue however is not generated by the intrinsic nature of the technology, but by politics, namely, by "environmentalists" trying to use the regulatory process to kill of an industry.

I use the term "environmentalists" in quotes, because with nuclear, far too many environmentalists are simply blindly hostile to nuclear power without really examining the total costs of the alternatives.

For example, windmills are fine, although even the "environmentalists" of Deep Blue State Massachusetts managed to block the Cape Cod windfarm for its visual impact, although windmills do have an environmental price beyond some people's allegedly sensitive aesthetics, just like everything else: Windmills are Cuisanarts for Tweety Birds.

Windmills kill lots of birds. Should we ban windmills, or see that as a natural selection process for Tweety Birds?

I say go for the latter on natural selection on Tweety, but, neither would I kid myself that windmills have no environmental costs either.

Take Solar, ever beloved of environmentalists. Now passive solar in the sense of designing for the heating and cooling effects of the Sun and Earth doesn't have any other potentially adverse consequences environmentally, other than the usually increased cost of building materials, but active solar is a rather different affair.

Active solar in the sense of solar panels and such have to be made of something, usually much like manufacturing a computer chip, which isn't totally environmentally friendly, like everything else in life, save possibly for climbing into a cave and dying.

Solar's great, when it works, but is very unlikely by itself to meet the energy demands of a growing society, and its a growing society that it seems like a lot of people really object too, which is fine, except it can come at a very high price, as it turns life into a pure zero sum contest.

Geothermal is probably underutilized, although its not risk free to drill deep holes into the Earth either, and it takes piping, and in has its limits as to how much power one could generate, unless one is going to play around with some very potentially powerful seismic forces, not therefore risk free either in its most productive mode.

Finally, beyond all the environmental fuss about Keystone and "fracking," and I'm sure there are consequences for the environment of doing both, but that's true for everything else we do anyway, what has never made a lot of sense to me about environmentalists and nuclear is with oil.

If we want to use less oil, we are going to need a lot of electricity to replace oil in terms of powering some sort of electric vehicles, and if we do that, nuclear is clearly in the absence of regulatory harrassment the most obvious way to do that.

Moreover, as to risks, which is riskier, a highly secured and technologically advanced nuclear system here powering up electric vehicles, or depending on the Middle East not to blow itself up periodically?

Then again, as a practical matter, trying to unhook from the Middle East might prove to be the most dangerous thing of all, as they might not like that very much, and try to prevent it, which however merely proves the point about nuclear: nothing in life is risk-free, nothing.

As to the second issue, nuclear waste, it has been the case for thirty years that the obvious answer is to just recycle it, which is called reprocessing, although maybe if they had called it recycling, it would have run into less political opposition.

In any event as to the waste issue and recycling-reprocessing, one can easily take nuclear wastes that worry so many people, at least as to what they say, and recycle it in specialized nuclear reactor facilities to extract and/or create isotopes that can in turn be "burned" in reactors.

Granted, one of the main products from recycling is Plutonium, preferable for using in nuclear weapons, although it can be done with enriched Uranium as well, making some people's statements about Plutonium in this context much of a "boo" word.

Moreover,  one doesn't leave Plutonium in its weapons concentration to burn in a reactor, and so therefore, it would not have to be left in a fissile state for very long in a reprocessing facility, the location of which if not exactly on everyone's first choice list, does have enough candidates to be done, say for example on a military base where chemical weapons were destroyed, as technical expertise and security are already co-located there.

After that and the more generalized radiation issue, the United States in the Lower 48 occupies around 3 million square miles; its not really that hard to find a even ten square miles, total overkill, to store what is left for what are long periods of time as to radioactive safety.

But as to that last point, radiation, are you still here from last week?

There was a huge sunspot storm that cast of massive amounts of raditation, even the dreaded Gamma burst, and yet, here we are.

Every time you step outside, you get irradiated. Its not harmless, and can cause cancer, but it has seemed to me that for a long time, nuclear was driven into the ground almost by too much Chicken Little, and now look at Fukushima Dai Ichi one year out.

It was certainly tragic that people died in the reactor fires at that facility, but, even under the worst case assumptions as to radioactive release, not nearly as many people are going to die anytime soon compared to how many people died in the quake and tsunami proper; it's not even very close.

Moreover, in the Japenese case, on an island smaller in inhabitable land than California, but with a population three times larger, and with little oil and gas of its own, Japan almost certainly needs more rather than less nuclear for the future, unless there are going to be a lot fewer, and poorer, Japanese.

Finally, the next generation of reactors is much more reliant on gravity for dealing with the one failure mode of current nuclear reactors that can be a problem, if not so far catastrophically in the U.S. Navy, namley Loss of Coolant Failure mode.

That's what basically happened at Fukushima in the meltdowns, because the backup diesels were flooded by a tsunami out of design specifications as being too rare an event to design against.

Obviously, that design specification as to maximum seismic risk was set too low for the lifetime of a nuclear facility, which is clearly on the order of 60-80 years as to being economically, if not necessarily politically, feasible, although that's really not the main issue in the end with what went wrong at Fukushima, which was from the Loss of Coolant Failure Mode in a more generalized sense, and for which the next generation of reactors is far better in terms of risk.

In the new designs, if there is a Loss of Coolant situation that starts to become a life and death of the facility issue, gravity kicks in, rather than a generator, which is according to the not very nuclear power industry friendly Union of Concerned Scientists, 100 times safer than what is already a low probability event, especially when in conclusion, you look at the U.S. Navy.

If nuclear power were so horrifically dangerous, isn't it the bottom line that we would have lost a lot more boats, and that you would have heard a lot more horror stories from the "Nuclear Navy?"

The bottom line is that American nuclear submarines are very secure locations, which really says a lot about nuclear power being too much the "boogey man" of energy politics, if clearly, it has risks associated with that industry.

When is that not true?





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Thanks for this -- an excellent post.

As you say, the so-called nuclear disaster in Japan was a tiny event in comparison to the tsunami. And yet in north american media we hear far more about Fukushima and its dreaded effects than we do about the earthquake and tsunami.

In terms of human lives lost and environmental damage done, the most serious consequence of Fukushima will be the burning of huge additional volumes of coal in Germany. It's hard to find a better example of how poor humans are at calculating relative risks.
"That's what basically happened at Fukushima in the meltdowns, because the backup diesels were flooded by a tsunami out of design specifications as being too rare an event to design against."

My understanding is that the diesel generators were located in a basement area. Had they been located higher up, they would have survived even if a tsunami overtopped the seawall.

So how exactly does "gravity" save the day? Even if you have a water tank located above the core and spent fuel ponds, you still have to be able to pump water into the tank, yes? I think I'm missing something but I'm not sure what.
There isn't nearly as much objection to nuclear power as there used to be, and it is more advanced than it was. However, it's only a part of the puzzle, because, from what I read (some time ago) if there's too much conversion, we'll start running into uranium shortages. I'd rather live close to a nuke plant than a coal generator because you can run from a melting nuke, but you live with coal pollution every day.

As far as gravity, mish, maybe he means the China Syndrome :)
I mean that the tanks Mishima are located above, and in suffient quantity so that in the event of failure, you don't have to pump any water, preferably by the way it is now obvious, loaded with boron to mediate neutron. Thanks for coming over.
No doubt, modern designs are safer and what they'll replace is more dangerous every single day.

According to Dr. Bill Wattenburg ( the waste from providing nuclear powered electric for a family of four for 20 years can be reduced to fit in a shoebox. The same electricity generated by coal, "about 5000 tons of ash and pollution in the atmosphere which contains hundreds of pounds of nuclear uranium and thorium which is being released in the air -- 10,000 times more radioactivity than whatever would come from a nuclear plant."

If you go to his site, also check out the petition to Obama to sign a presidential order that all government fleet purchases be set up to run on dual fuel: LP gas or gasoline.

Aside from that, yes, those very expensive LED light bulbs (which easily save 3 to 4 times their cost in electric during their life and additionally save the cost of all the light bulbs they outlast) are but one of many conservation measures which can reduce what we need to build in the first place. Overcoming the limited attitudes about how important the long term effects are and getting past the shallow, dismissive reactions of shallow thinkers, is the real challenge.