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Japan's Nuclear Catastrophe and Governor Andrew Cuomo's Policy to Close Indian Point

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It is clear that New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo is going to try to prevent the renewal of the operating license for the Indian Point nuclear power station. While I wish that over the past half-century the United States had invested research funds in the development of a safer form of nuclear power, it is clear that the current technology creates highly toxic waste and the potential for massive radiation releases from natural disasters or terrorism. While today's plants are safer than the older ones, they still pose unacceptable risks. Governor Cuomo is correct to pursue this policy. Despite the potential for increased costs and interrupted energy supplies, an accident at Indian Point could impact the health and environment of about twenty million people. The economic impact of an accident could be massive and unpredictable. The economic impact of decommissioning Indian Point can be contained and controlled.

Japan may be far away from New York and in a very different part of the planet, but let's remember what happened there earlier this year. Over the past several months I have been working with members of our Earth Institute staff (Alison Miller, Eve Solomon, and Alok Disa) on a recently completed case study of that accident. This fall, I will be teaching that case along with a second case about the Gulf Oil spill in a unit on energy in my graduate sustainability management course. The case begins with a chronology of the first few days of this catastrophe, summarized here:

The earthquake struck Japan's northeast coast at 2:46 p.m. local time on March 11, 2011. With a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, it was one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. The quake struck off the coast of Honshu Island in an area with 11 operating nuclear power reactors, including three operating reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, four at Fukushima Daini, three at Onogawa and one at Tokai. Three reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were undergoing routine maintenance and were not operating at the time of the earthquake.

When the earthquake struck, safety systems started and all 11 reactors were tripped by automatic shutdown systems that caused nuclear fission processes to halt. These systems terminate the fission process by placing control rods, composed of materials that block neutrons, into the reactor cores. However, fuel rods must still be kept cool even after the fission process stops, because byproducts of the nuclear reaction continue to produce heat for years. Safety mechanisms ensure that the control rods are cooled by continuously flowing water powered by electric-powered pumps. If water stops flowing, the water can evaporate, leaving fuel rods exposed and threatening a nuclear meltdown. The earthquake destroyed the connection between the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi and the national power grid, but in the immediate aftermath of the quake, backup diesel generators were able to power the pumps.1 If that wasn't bad enough, remember that one hour later the earthquake caused a tsunami.

The tsunami was 46 ft. high and breeched the 19 ft. seawall that was meant to protect the Fukushima plant. An earlier design for the plant included a higher seawall that was cut to save costs. The backup diesel generators did not survive the tsunami, and only batteries remained to power the cooling systems. The batteries lasted eight hours. Eight of the 11 reactors in the vicinity successfully went into "cold shutdown" mode and continued to circulate water, thanks to the use of portable diesel generators. By 6:00 p.m. Friday, the water level in reactor No. 1 was falling, and the fuel in that reactor was eventually exposed. Around 7:00 pm, Prime Minister Naoto Kan declares a "state of nuclear emergency," while reassuring the public that the proper procedures were being followed and that no radioactive leaks had been detected. One official stated, "It's possible that radioactive material in the reactor vessel could leak outside but the amount is expected to be small and the wind blowing towards the sea will be considerable."2 However, after the uranium fuel in the No. 1 reactor became fully exposed and damage to the central core began, the government ordered an evacuation notice for those living with a 3-kilometer radius of Fukushima I Power Plant.3

Pump failures meant that the fuel rods could not be cooled. As a result, the casing of these rods swelled and cracked, releasing radioactive particles into the building. At that point high temperatures in the core caused oxygen to be stripped from the surrounding steam, leaving hydrogen gas to spread throughout the facility. Hydrogen gas and can be extremely explosive, and in this case it blew off the roof of the building housing the reactor, injuring 4 workers. While the explosion was not thought have damaged the main reactor, the Japanese government further extended the evacuation zone, now covering a population of approximately 100,000 residents, and began distributing iodine pills to stave off radiation poisoning. Pumping of seawater began in a "desperate bid" to cool the reactor, with the use of fire trucks and hoses.4

By the following day, radiation levels within Fukushima Daiichi power plant exceeded government-designated safe limits. In the following days, the fuel in reactor No. 3 and reactor No. 2 would also become exposed, resulting in leakage of nuclear waste from these reactors and threatening a partial meltdown.5 The operation to vent and then refill the reactors with seawater and boric acid to halt the progress of the nuclear reactions was expanded to these reactors. Another hydrogen explosion ripped through reactor No. 3 building, injuring 7 workers and 4 soldiers.6 The cooling system of reactor No. 2 completely failed, and to prevent another hydrogen explosion workers cut a hole in the building. At this time, Tokyo Electric Power Company believed the spent fuel rod storage pool at reactor No. 4 was overheating, threatening a criticality accident -- or an increase in radioactivity transmitted to the surrounding areas. Japanese Prime Minister Kan urged those within 30 km of Unit 4 to remain indoors. Within a few days, the government banned shipment of certain agricultural products from areas surrounding the nuclear incident.7

If, like me, you can't convert kilometers into miles in your head, 30 kilometers is about 18.6 miles. The Bronx is 25 miles from the Indian Point nuclear plant, and midtown Manhattan is 35 miles away. About 950,000 people live in Westchester and over 300,000 live in Rockland County. The people in the pathway of exposure to an accident at Indian Point number in the millions. While the probability of an accident is not high, is this really a lesson we want to learn the hard way?

The transition to renewable energy is going to take some time. Our energy infrastructure includes a number of large, capital intensive facilities that will not be replaced overnight. If we can figure out how to extract local sources of natural gas out of the ground without hydrofracking, gas may provide a low price bridging fuel for New York. We should also be investing in solar technology and cost subsidies to increase the use of solar power in the United States. We have developed an economy that brings us enormous benefits, but also carries substantial risk. The Governor is correct in trying to reduce the probability of a nuclear catastrophe. It will take enormous political skill and creativity to shut down Indian Point, but Governor Andrew Cuomo may very well be one of the few people in the U.S. with the ability to get this done.

1. Biello, David. "Anatomy of a nuclear crisis: A chronology of Fukishima." Yale Environment 360, March 21 2011.
2. Evans, Martin. "Japan nuclear crisis: Timeline of official statements." The Telegraph, 15 March 2011. Accessed 8 August.
3. Biello, 2011.
4. Ibid.
5. Grimston, Malcolm. "Fukushima: What happened - and what needs to be done." BBC. 10 April 2011.
6. Biello, 2011.
7. Ibid.

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