Friday, March 25, 2011

The Nuclear Fix

Fukushima and Daiichi have, unfortunately, become household words. As you know, Fukushima Daiichi is the name of the nuclear power plant in northeast Japan dangerously damaged by the disastrous March 11 earthquake/tsunami. 

Fukushima is a common name in Japan, a family name as well as a place name. It is the name of one of the 47 prefectures in Japan as well as the name of the capital city of that prefecture, a city with a population of around 290,000—at least before the earthquake/tsunami greatly damaged much of the city. Ironically, fukushima means island of good fortune.

Daiichi simply means number one, and that is the name of the nuclear power plant with six reactors in Fukushima Prefecture. Those reactors went into commercial operation between 1971 and 1979. Fukushima Daini (number two), a nuclear power plant with four reactors, is located just a few miles away. In spite of such a huge earthquake, there seems to have no serious damage to the reactors at the Daini power plant. It was the powerful tsunami that caused most of the disastrous damage at Daiichi. 
Many years ago I wrote an article for a Japanese YMCA publication questioning the use of nuclear plants. Part of my concern was the potential danger due to accidents, and part was because of the problem of disposing of nuclear waste.

But then I was not aware of the problem of global warming, at least partly linked to the emission of greenhouse gases. So now I think that probably the long-term danger from global warming is greater than the danger of radiation due to accidents or nuclear waste.

Even though there are certainly grave results from exposure to radiation, perhaps the disastrous effects of radiation have been exaggerated. This is not to deny in any way that there were thousands and thousands of people in Japan who died of “atomic bomb disease,” radiation poisoning, after August 1945.
My parents made their first visit to Japan in 1969. When we took them to the Peace Park in Nagasaki, my father marveled at how much vegetation there was all around. He said, “They told us after the war that nothing would grow in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for 75 years.” It was Dr. Harold Jacobsen, a scientist from the Manhattan Project, who told the Washington Post after the dropping of the atomic bombs that Hiroshima “will be barren of life and nothing will grow for 75 years.”

But when June and I first visited Hiroshima in 1967, just 22 years after the war’s end, there was ample vegetation already, even in the area near the epicenter, just as there was in Nagasaki in 1969 when we visited there with my parents.  
So, we know that it is possible for local areas to overcome the effect of even atomic bombs, as terrible as they were. But the effects of global warming will be just that: global.

Certainly there needs to be every possible precaution taken to make nuclear energy safe. But in the long run, the continuing, and expanding, use of nuclear reactors is probably better for global society than continued, or expanded, use of coal- or gas-powered plants.


  1. This is one of the saddest posts of all. It underscores the spiritual impoverishment of humanity that we don't have enough communal reason, vision and will to take a path apart from one that forces us to choose between nuclear power plants and coal-and-gas-powered plants for our energy usage. It makes me think of Gen. 6:5-6: "Yahweh saw that human wickedness was great on earth...and Yahweh regretted having made human beings on earth and was grieved at heart."

  2. Here an important comment (received by e-mail) from a Thinking Friend who doesn't often write:

    "I share your concerns about global warming, but I am also concerned about the first choice in combating that, seems to be nuclear. I feel that we should concentrate first on wind and solar energy. I also realize that many places cannot generate power from these sources, and must resort to nuclear. Thanks for bringing this problem to our attention.

  3. I fully agree that it is very sad that the choice seems to be between nuclear energy or coal/gas energy. I am a big supporter of wind and solar energy, and other innovative energy sources. But the fact is: they cannot (or at least, in all probability, will not) be developed fast enough to meet the energy needs of the world.

    I wish there were enough people to follow the Third Way that I wrote about last time. That would include, among other things, a sizable reduction in energy consumption. That is likely not to happen. So, realistically, taking "the lesser of two evils" seems to be the prudent course of action.

    What other realistic solution to the energy problem is there? I am open to suggestions.

  4. Indeed, speaking "realistically," you're right. That's the problem. Being realistic doesn't make it any less irrational or suicidal. When I wrote, "the spiritual impoverishment of humanity," I wasn't talking about merely choosing between alternative forms of energy; I was talking about the much more fundamental inability to change "the energy needs of the world."

  5. A smile for the early, Gentle Anarchist motto: Split wood not atoms.

    The third way will be unpalatable to many. Possibly a focus on the fourth or fifth way might be better. Much as in general relativity physics, there are other alternatives outside the box.

  6. I remember many years ago listening to my then pastor, Dr. Bill LInk, preach against nuclear power. His logic was that it is simply too dangerous to manage. It may be. However, looking at the alternatives, I think we would be better to campaign for the best nuclear power, rather than for no nuclear power.

    It is said that the best is the enemy of the good, and that is exactly the kind of best nuclear power we need. The good nuclear power is causing disaster in Japan. Good is not good enough in nuclear power.

    The first step in a best nuclear power strategy would be a rational recycling program. One truly sad element in the current crisis is that a significant part of the problem is an excessive number of spent nuclear rods stored on the site of these aging nuclear plants. Yet it is a testimony to the remaining value in the spent rods that they are still so radioactive that their excess heat is truly dangerous. If we can ship new, full-power rods to the plants, we can ship spent rods to a recycling center, to be reprocessed into new rods, and much less radioactive waste.

    A second strategy echoes the parallel discovery of the problem at the BP oil well disaster last year, we lack the technology to resolve certain major disasters, technology we finally invented after-the-fact for oil wells. Robust, probably robotic, emergency control systems are needed. Some should be onsite, some should available within hours. We need to invent a safe way to kill a broken nuclear reactor.

    Improved passive security measures are needed. It is ridiculous that it is a major achievement to get cooling water into a broken core. We should have the reverse system, where a normally operating core is protected from emergency flooding.

    On the other hand, no nuclear reactor should be built in a tsunami flood plain. Well, for that matter, neither should any city. Where I live, in the American Midwest, we rebuilt a number of small cities after the floods of 1993 to relocate them on high ground near their original sites. I hope Japan considers doing that with both nuclear reactors and the cities they serve. Granted, some large established Midwestern cities lie behind protective levees. However, not even the Mississippi River floods like a tsunami.

    Obsolete nuclear plants should be phased out. Unending relicensing is just a way of gambling with the future. Indeed, even the "best" practices would be gambling with the future. However, some gambling seems unavoidable. The question is, can we be rational enough to stay in control of the forces we have set loose? As we have watched our banks, our oil wells, and our nuclear plants suffer recent meltdowns, the prospects are uncertain.