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Nuclear power: Go ahead or stop now?

March 14, 2011


After an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on Friday, engineers are pumping seawater into damaged nuclear reactors to prevent a catastrophic full-scale meltdown, but major damage has already occurred and the plants likely won’t operate again, experts said.

The political impact of the crisis is also hitting home in the United States. The U.S. currently has 104 nuclear reactors operating, and analysts expect four to eight new reactors to be built.

Senator Joe Lieberman, who chairs the Senate’s homeland security panel, said on Sunday the United States should “put the brakes on” new nuclear power plants until the impact of the incident in Japan becomes clear.

What are your thoughts on the use of nuclear power? Give your answers below.

I think nuclear power is:

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How has the tsunami changed your view of nuclear power?

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Should the U.S. proceed with plans to build 4-8 more nuclear plants?

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If it takes an 8.9 earthquake, a direct hit from a tsunami and failure of two backup systems to cause this kind of problem, that is a testament to the safety of nuclear power especially for areas that don’t have any seismic activity.

Posted by ZombieMN | Report as abusive

I don’t think the tsunami has changed my view of nuclear power, but the nuclear power has changed my opinion of a natural disaster.

Posted by EXCEL_R | Report as abusive

So we have a design that’s a half-century old, and reactors that are approaching their fourth decade. They’ve been hit by record breaking earthquakes and tsunami waves. They’ve had their backup generators offline for nearly a week. In spite of all this, they’ve held up pretty damn well. An economic loss – for certain, but a public health risk that’s basically nothing compared to the devastation going on around the plant. We might have 10k people or more killed by nature and we’re supposed to be worried about an additional 10 cancer cases over the next 50 years? Get serious!

Posted by PDenoli | Report as abusive

Living on the edge of southern California, earthquakes and tsunamis are a possibility. The Japan event has altered my perspective on nuclear safety. San Onofre is about 20 miles away from my home. It is now 30 years old, built to withstand a 7.0 and a 25 foot wave. The “big one” will be much stronger than 7.0. I may have answered the survey questions more optimistically last week.

Posted by MyraMoxy | Report as abusive

GE Makes these reactors, and we have a bunch of them in the USA. If hydrogen explosions and radioactive gas releases are a side effect of this poor design, what is the chance it will happen here. It may not be an earthquake that does it, it could be due to sabotage, terrorism, or just good old bad maintenance and management.

Remember if 3 mile island had exploded, the entire city of Harrisburg, PA would be a ghost town today. The economic impact of a nuclear accident is astronomical.

For those who still think 3 mile island was minor, understand this. THE REACTOR MELTED DOWN COMPLETELY. The only reason it didn’t explode was because of dumb luck. The entire reactor emptied of water (normally a bad thing!), so there was no steam explosion and the hydrogen bubble in the containment vessel did not ignite.

It took over a decade to clean up the destroyed 3 mile island reactor and guess who paid for it. THE TAXPAYER.

You see, the nuclear energy industry managed to push through congress a liability limit law, so the damages they had to pay were minimal at best.

Posted by RickCain | Report as abusive

With all nuclear power stations being built near the coast, on flat land, they are all subject to flooding as sea levels rise. We can expect more to flood over the coming years and there are already a number that are closed almost every year, in various countries, during the winter or rainy seasons, as local rivers rise and high tides threaten the safety of the plants.

Posted by goodname | Report as abusive

There’s one disaster scenario that has never been discussed or debated. What happens if a nuclear power plant needs to be decommissioned immediately and permanently? You may ask what circumstances would require such an immediate action. I would answer that a sudden total collapse of oil supply and/or the financial structures that hold the production and supply lines in place. Even armies and military structures would fall apart if oil supply and financial structures collapsed, meaning the military wouldn’t be able to take over the maintenance and running of these nuclear complexes leading to eventual meltdowns in every power plant. Those nations with many nuclear power plants would not be able to move to even a medieval society if the enetire nation was irradiated.

Posted by icub412 | Report as abusive

PDenoli’s comment does illustrate the resilience of properly designed nuclear reactors. However, critics also have a point and their concerns should not be dismissed.

Overall, I would say the Fukushima power plant incident highlights the importance of passive safeties.

The reactors at Fukushima nuclear power plant are Generation 2 BWRs built in the 70s (and probably designed in the 60s). It only has active cooling systems, so it REQUIRES having some source of electricity. This incident has shown how undesirable such a system is.

Modern reactors (Generation III and III+) thankfully are designed with a philosophy of passive safety. They do not have pumps and instead rely on natural laws of physics to operate their safety systems (e.g. through pressure differentials, gravity, etc). This also means they do not require electricity to operate their safety systems.

The ESBWR (GE’s latest evolution of the BWR) is a good example. It’s cooling system has no pumps and requires no electricity. It operates based on natural laws of fluid dynamics. It can keep a reactor’s pressure vessel sufficiently filled with coolant for 3 days, and this requires no intervention. The reactor can essentially be left alone for three days before needing the water reservoir topped off.

Rather than taking this incident as a reason to be anti-nuclear, it should be taken as pro-passive safety.

Posted by ErnW | Report as abusive

Rick, let’s deal with what did happen at TMI and not go off into fantasy land…TMI had a 50% core melt. It was never in danger of exploding. The design ensured no impact on the public.

It did cost the company lots of money both in recovery costs and lost generation.

Posted by sarms58 | Report as abusive

I’m just wondering why 40+ year old Nuclear reactor is still running and not replaced. The other site in Onagawa had no such problems and it was closer to the quake center than Fukishima

Posted by prastagus | Report as abusive

The plants are deceptively economical to operate. Even now, Japan will still use nuclear as the switch to fossil is prohibitively expensive – and ‘green’ energy won’t supply the 24/7 convenience we are ALL accustomed to. The cost of a Chernobyl sized accident, spread over the 40 years Japan has had nuclear service, might be less financially attractive. I see a future of tiered electricity. Fossil for those who can afford it, and ‘daytime electric’ for the rest.

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

I don’t think you can look at Japan and make a conclusion that nuclear power is unsafe. They did not have much control over this incident. Perhaps the bigger picture is why so many earthquakes

Posted by Byam | Report as abusive

I’m all in favor of building as many nuclear plants as necessary to make it a more viable form of energy. I just think we should avoid building them on or near major fault lines…

Posted by cj_thomas10 | Report as abusive

I was there at Three Mile Island. Nearly 20 years later, my best friend died from breast cancer and I was diagnosed with it a year after that. The article by Reuters yesterday claimed that there were no health effects – an example of lying with statistics – it depended on where you were and where the releases were taken by the wind. Of course if you average over an entire population many of whom were never exposed you can erroneously claim it had no effect. Yes, it matters. The industry only survives because radiation is invisible and the effects of small levels show up many, many years later in cancers. It’s *not* clean energy like solar and wind, no matter what Obama and the industry say. My life will never be the same. But to the apologists for the industry, I don’t matter. Think! Care!

Posted by mainer54 | Report as abusive

It’s not worth the risks. We should find other ways.

Posted by tmmcguire | Report as abusive

Perhaps Sen. Lieberman can get power sustainability to be a national security issue. Then all the patents for green energy scooped up & taken off the market by the oil & nuclear industries can be open sourced to entrepreneurs who could develop financially attractive appliances.

Those of us in large cities with regular summer air-conditioning-caused blackouts; from areas with regular hurricane area blackouts; from rural areas with downed line blackouts; etc. have proven we are already interested in single-home solar panel, battery-operated radios, electric lanterns and flashlights, electric cars, home wells, home generators to run loved-ones oxygen machines, etc.

If energy patents were liberated from profit-hungry corporations that would help, while we wait for the Supreme Court to realize that the needs of people people are more important than corporation “people.”

Posted by cybergrace | Report as abusive

Same old crap. The United states will never get out of the nuclear energy industry. To many people with too much at stake… and money is all that matters. Note part of Mr lieberman’s statement: “until the impact of the incident in Japan becomes clear.”. In other words, we will continue with nuclear energy at some point in time. Nuclear power can never be completly safe…never. If something can happen, something will happen given enough time. Earthquakes, terrorists, greed, stupidity….you name it. And how about the transport of nuclear materials all over the place. Also, google MOX fuel. Talk about an eye opener.

Posted by 123456951 | Report as abusive

Of course nuclear energy is unsafe, how much more proof do we need to be given? If the Japanese reactor does go into meltdown then there will be many cases of cancer, as has been shown to be the case after the Chernobyl incident. The cost of running these plants is also deceptive. You only have to look at the problems we now face in the UK trying to get rid of the waste, which is now going to cost billions to dispose of.

Posted by nevvie | Report as abusive

The civilian nuclear industry is of course tied to weapons, from the start. That’s why we don’t want Iran–only an enemy for just over 20 years, an oil partner before that–getting reactors.

Since innumeracy and science illiteracy are cornerstones of American culture, we can stay confused about transient radiation exposure from say, diagnostic X-rays, and eating radionuclides that will be coming up the food chain. Cancer comes from both, but from miniscule amounts of radiation ingested in the body. Children are ost vulnerable, but that’s low on the list if it affects utility profits.

With weathermen on TV standing in for engineers trying to explain cooling systems that they clearly don’t understand, most viewers will stay confused. The nuclear industry, where the money is at stake, won’t tell the truth, and that’s proven from the past.

Eventually, we’ll realize that decades of stored fuel is burning, and there aren’t enough qualified technicians that want to die on the job to try to stop it. IT will keep burnig for a long time. Maybe we can shift from spending $56 billion more on nuclear dangers here and put the money and jobs in getting our old fuel at every plant in secure dry cask storage, like Germany did 25 years ago. Oh, and they just took all their plants off-line for additional review and inspection. Time for Americans to review 8th grade physical science…

Posted by TooCheaptoMeter | Report as abusive

Nuclear power no longer makes sense. It’s a centralized power source vulnerable to terrorism and natural disasters where the consequences of failure mean both large-scale blackouts and the potential for severe health impacts. Why spend the money on new plants when that money can be used for alternatives. Claiming alternatives cannot supply the power is shortsighted as a combination of wind, solar, geothermal, and conservation will relieve demand, first primarily in housing and later in industry as energy storage technologies improve. We will be a much stronger and safer nation and world if power sources are decentralized. Wind is now cheaper than coal, solar is making big gains (see what Spain is doing), and there are other sources such as tidal energy just beginning to be used.

Posted by badger67 | Report as abusive

Compared to many other industries, nuclear power is pretty safe.

Basically, what we are witnessing is about as bad as it gets in a light-water reactor. A massive earthquake followed by a Tsunami, and three reactors partially melt down, and the worst you can say is that they vented a bunch of radioactive steam. The effects on human health are likely to be negligible.

Even Chernobyl had very little long-term health impact. A massive fire spreads radioactive dust across thousands of square miles and 20 years later, the effect on cancer rates in the area is impossible to distinguish from noise, according to the WHO report.

Compare that to all the other ways you can die, and the long-term impacts of global warming. A lot more people are going to die because of flooding, crop losses, and war than will die because of long-term low-level radiation exposure from nuclear accidents.

Posted by LunaCity | Report as abusive

When all is said and done, it will be shown again that, besides the casualties directly resulting from the forces of nature, the majority of victims and injuries from this horrible tragedy are due to fossil fuels. This can already be seen on the pictures coming from Japan, showing many fiery explosions, massive fireballs and thick black smoke. Extensive damage and high casualties from the extraction, processing, storage and transportation of fossil fuels has been the pattern in all major catastrophes in the world, to the point that nobody is too surprised anymore with the frequent news about fires in refineries, explosions in natural gas deposits and pipes, accidents in coal mines, etc.
In such context, to almost exclusive focus the current news on the nuclear plants and the risks of radiation comes across as unbalanced, if not straightforward biased. Anything can be improved, I guess, but we cannot protect ourselves from all risks, and much less from such exceptional, overpowering and far reaching events.
I believe that most governments will understand that nuclear power, when properly handled, is clean and safe, and that a combination of a grade-9 earthquake plus a giant tsunami is an occurrence bound to happen every half a million years or so, if ever again. In the meantime, not having several power plants grouped in the same area seems like a good idea, but most of the world already avoids such an arrangement.
As for the media, it would be nice to see headlines on subjects closer to social responsibility, for a change. Like on the urgent need to help Japan, a country bordering collapse right now, due to the paralysis of its economy and the disruption of its social services and transportation.

Posted by Citrine | Report as abusive

haha.. a lot of hobb’s choices with our energy alternatives. I don’t like the coal fracking to extract gas either and that seems to be proceeding through doesn’t it, even though it has the potential or certainty of destroying water supplies irretrievably and we just are blithely unaware of this. Let’s just poison ourselves in the name of profit. Newer nuclear plants are designed differently and I know there are dedicated people often in charge, but humans make mistakes and when there are confounding problems then we have fouled our nest for sure. AND with congressional budget cut zeal we are robbing our watchdog and alert systems to further confound the potential problems. Maybe I’d rather have a solar/wind grid that is benign and investigate ideas like Tesla’s water car, etc. and perhaps we should just knock off and go dance outside in the clean air when have some down time. Might be pretty healthy.

Posted by rosielaf | Report as abusive

How much nuclear waste exists on the earth today that was not dangerous 100 years ago?
How long will it take until it is safe from terrorists, earthquakes and any other threat?
Is this really the very best that intelligent civilised humans can come up with?
Will they continue to use them and build them at any price at all including destruction of human and animal life, perhaps the destruction of whole countries in the end?
Is it wise, sensible, safe, best for the future of the planet, and a healty option. Are they truly competent to play with nuclear reactors – I do not think so.

Posted by Vanwin | Report as abusive

If BP were made to pay for the recent catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico can we expect to see a similar approach to the present, albeit faceless, nuclear energy companies involved in the present catastrophe?

Posted by Civic1Pop | Report as abusive

It is of course a fact that these reactors are very dangerous, if, and this is a very big if, a explosion happens. The chance that an explosion happens in normal circumstances is nearly zero.

In Japan, first an earthquake, and after that a tsunami hit the reactor. There are not so much buildings and fortifications who can hold it up to a force like this. The reactor is built very strong, but they have forgotten something, and that is that the reactor is close to the coast, in a ring of fire.

This is almost the same thing as asking for problems. I understand that there is not much room in Japan, but I think they could find a better place for it.

We cannot stop with nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is a very big and clean source, which don’t produce CO2 or N2O or CH4, or anything like that.

The fact is, that 1 kg of uranium is giving the same energy as 2.000 ton of petroleum. If we want that we don’t need this, then we have to use less energy, by driving with public transport, by using 1 tv and not 3, and a lot of things you already know.

Without a loss in demand, nuclear energy will always be a needed alternative.

Posted by uLtRaTRim | Report as abusive

The burning of fossil fuel cause respiratory problems and deaths in far greater numbers than nuclear energy. Reactors and the surrounding technologies now more advanced than the older technology of these Japanese reactors. We need nuclear energy!

Posted by abkisa | Report as abusive

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