I remember well the impact of the Chernobyl disaster, having left Poland the week before. I was in close phone contact with Polish friends as radioactivity spread to their region. People were told to stay indoors, wash their hair. Out of that disaster, activists were born: I encountered them later when I studied the environmental movement in eastern Europe. Now Japan is facing its own nuclear energy crisis. And today, engineer and economist Lloyd J. Dumas, the author of 2010's The Technology Trap: Where Human Error and Malevolence Meet Dangerous Technologies, argues that nuclear technology cannot be made safe. - Janine R. Wedel
In the aftermath of the horrendous disaster in Japan, serious damage to a number of nuclear reactors in that country has once again called into question the wisdom of relying on nuclear power for an important part of our electricity supply. Are we overreacting?
No. Nuclear power is an inherently dangerous technology. Nuclear plants are designed with multiple levels of protection against disaster. But power reactors live in a delicate balance between using the heat from nuclear reactions to turn water into steam that drives electricity generators, and keeping the core of the reactor cool enough to avoid potentially catastrophic melting of the fuel rods. It is precisely this delicate balance that has been disrupted at the Japanese reactors.
First the ground shaking of this unexpectedly powerful earthquake did some as yet unspecified damage to the nuclear plants, which are designed to withstand lesser quakes. Then the tsunamis that rolled in from the sea added to the damage. The result was a loss of both off-site and on-site power, crippling the plants ability to operate critical reactor cooling systems -- one of the most serious situations that a nuclear power plant can encounter. With coolant levels dropping in the reactor core, fuel rods were exposed and rapidly began to overheat, turning steam into hydrogen that has already exploded at several reactors. Worse yet, the buildup of heat is melting the fuel rods, driving the reactors farther out of control. As a last ditch emergency measure, the plants operators have flooded the cores of the troubled reactors with seawater, which will temporarily keep them cool enough to forestall disaster, at the cost of corroding and ruining the reactors.
But natural disaster is far from the only source of danger. Nuclear plants are also appealing targets for terrorists. From 1976-2000, there were more than 1800 nuclear safeguards incidents, including 740 "bomb-related incidents", at American nuclear plants according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We have been told that the only airliner hijacked on 9/11 that did not reach its intended target was likely headed for the White House or the Capitol. But after it was taken over and before the passengers and crew fought with the hijackers, the plane was headed in the direction of and only about 15 minutes flying time from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. If that world-famous plant was the intended target, had the hijackers succeeded, we could easily have had an American Chernobyl on our hands.
Something as mundane, ubiquitous, and unavoidable as human error is also a potential source of nuclear disaster. A combination of design error and failure to follow guidelines for safe operation of the reactor at Chernobyl played a key role in triggering that catastrophic accident in 1986. Nuclear plant operators in the U.S. have reportedly been found asleep on the job or impaired by alcohol or drugs, apparently as a reaction to what is most of the time an extremely boring job. There is even some early indication that human error may have played a role in the still unfolding events in Japan. Apparently, no one had ensured that there was an adequate supply of diesel fuel for the generators that serve as a critical backup for powering emergency core cooling systems.
Finally, there is the problem of how to ensure the safe storage of nuclear waste. It was blithely assumed in the early days of nuclear power that before enough dangerously radioactive waste had accumulated to be a serious problem, we would develop new technologies to safely treat or at least store the waste. More than half a century has gone by since then, and the truth is we have made some progress, but we still don't have that problem anywhere near solved. Yet we continue to generate more and more of this long-lived waste, even as we contemplate expanding nuclear industry once again.
If we had no alternative ways to power our society and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy would still be a very risky path to follow. But there are a wide variety of practical alternatives available, from serious attention to improving energy efficiency (while maintaining our standard of living) to a whole host of ecologically benign renewable energy sources. Decades ago, the Sandia National Laboratory estimated damages into the hundreds of billions of dollars could be caused by a major accident at key nuclear plants in the U.S. It is hard to imagine even a catastrophic accident at a field of wind power generators that could do more than millions of dollars of damage. More important, the threat to human life and the environment posed by nuclear power is also much, much greater.
Natural disasters, such as the gigantic earthquake off the coast of Japan, remind us of the fragility of even our most impressive technologies and the utter interconnectedness of our modern societies. We cannot prevent these disasters any more than we can eliminate the potential for human malevolence that leads some people to terrorism or overcome the ubiquity of human error. But we can choose to depend on technologies that do not expose us to the level of risk posed by nuclear power. That is certainly within our reach.