A little more than two years ago, I wrote a post entitled, "Renewable Electricity is Our Only Viable Option." The bottom line was that nuclear power plants were just too expensive. The 9.0 Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami has totally changed the comparison landscape, initially covered in my HuffPo last week.
I flew into Tokyo's Narita Airport on Day Two of this crisis, barely got into my hotel room after a trying five hours of travel agony. On Day Four I took the advice of the French Embassy, again found my way to Narita, and thanks to United Airlines, escaped to Beijing. However, the feud China is having with Google is stifling my reporting ability, so I moved to Seoul to enable me to continue my personal blog. South Korea is #1 in net speed, but actually plunged 24% just with Apple's iPhone. Yes, connection is much slower now, at least from the W Seoul.
That aside, this is thus no knee-jerk reaction: Nuclear fission is now no longer an option for our society. Mind you, I have a pro-nuclear stance, and even penned "There is Something About Thorium," for The Huffington Post. But I'm afraid even this cleaner fission option now no longer has any real chance.
I still hold long-term hopes for fusion, but my experience working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on laser fusion, and my knowledge of the ITER magnetic confinement experiment in France, convinces me that we are at least a generation away, and more likely two or more, before any kind of commercialization will occur. I also have not totally discarded some hybrid form of cold fusion.
Here are the reasons why nuclear fission is dead:
1. Economics. Compounding the obvious from Part 1, all existing nuclear sites will now undergo a careful review, and those allowed to operate will no doubt be faced with massive retrofitting costs to withstand hurricanes and other potential natural disasters. Keep in mind that last year in the USA, there were 14 "incidents," which can only worry you if live close to any nuclear power plant. Click on "The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010" for details. Add terrorism factors, future storage concerns and the overly generous government benefits towards nuclear electricity and the cost factors can be multiplied. But for equal time, I was informed that there were 25 serious fossil fuel accidents last year, meaning that, I guess, renewable energy makes even more sense as the only option left.
2. Liability. Certainly, another cost item, but the matter of who will pay for any nuclear accidents could be a future killer for the industry. Presently, the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act largely protects them. In short, if you are affected by any nuclear disaster, your local utility will be obligated to cover up to $12.6 billion. Beyond that the government steps in to give you aid, maybe. Remember that the Fukushima earthquake damages will exceed $300 billion, although nature's earthquake and tsunami caused most this destruction. It's a bit more complicated than this, of course, but the underlying motivation had to do with the Department of Defense encouraging the industry when they chose uranium/plutonium over thorium to provide material for atomic bombs. In the future, society will not permit this largesse to nuclear investors. I don't think most within a hundred miles of any nuclear power plant realize all this.
3. The attitude of the public. Three Mile Island effectively prevented any new nuclear electricity development in the U.S. and Chernobyl for at least a decade just about killed world interest. Fukushima has now wiped out any future construction for a long time to come. Consider that every one of Japan's 55 nuclear reactors are at their coastline, many on the Ring of Fire. China had 25 new nukes in the pipeline and today suspended their approval. This is a country that is desperate for power, were planning to expand from the current 10,800 nuclear megawatts to 86,000 MW by 2020, but so quickly and summarily coming to this decision is breath-taking indeed. Checking with local authorities who should know, though, they are skeptical that this pronouncement has any real meaning except for possibly good public relations.
4. Freshwater. Now that any new nuclear power plant at the coastline (and they are built there because seawater is used as the coolant) will be resisted, what about building them away from earthquakes sufficiently inland? Well, consider that half of the water consumption in France is utilized by their 58 nuclear generation facilities, and you get the picture.
5. Worst case scenario. This is hyperbole and rhetoric, but if Fukushima #3 had exploded like Chernobyl, imagine an area about the size of Switzerland remaining contaminated for at least a 100,000 years. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, but 24,000 years later, half the radiation remains. Chernobyl did not have plutonium, and their restricted area will supposedly be kept unused "only" for 300 years. Gray smoke on Day 12 from Fukushima probably means burning fuel rods. Black smoke on Day 13 could well mean burning cement, meaning that it is all over, the rods are melted. I can only fear the worse, and hope I'm wrong.
Toss in peak oil and global warming into the above cauldron and we have an explosive mixture that can only be ameliorated by renewable energy. The problem, though, is at least two-fold: time, or the lack of it, and the incapability of our decision-makers to make command decisions with our democratic form of government heavily influenced by lobbyists. China just did it, but I'm afraid the USA will mostly diddle and dawdle.
So you ask, what can our government do? Well, perhaps the "10% Simple Solution to Peace" can now be considered.
By the way, the Huffington Post published a parallel article the same morning as this posting:
which provides a blow-by-blow reportage of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. Curiously, though, while this article will draw more than 50 comments, that one has ZERO.