Let me start with this. I am not, per se, an opponent of nuclear power. When it comes to solutions to our energy problems, I'm for "all of the above". I think we will need a mix of technologies for many years to come. That includes nuclear power, which can, if done right, provide virtually limitless quantities of clean, environmentally friendly energy.
I am, however, opposed to pretense. Nuclear power plants may be clean. They are also extraordinarily dangerous if not run securely and safely. A meltdown at the Indian Point nuclear power plant
in New York State, for instance, has the potential to force the evacuation of the entire New York City metro area. That kind of downside seems to me to compel us to make very, very sure that such an event is as close to impossible as we can make it.
The nuclear power industry responds to all such concerns by citing its safety record, the security measures in place at its facilities and the lack of a catastrophic event on US soil. There is no doubt this record is impressive, just as there is no doubt that a lot of very good men and women work very hard everyday in nuclear power plants across this country to make sure a meltdown does not occur.
Still, the nuclear industry has a problem. Its record worldwide is good. It is not unblemished.
First, there was Three Mile Island, a near disaster right in the heart of the Eastern seaboard. For years after it occurred the spin was that the plant never came close to a meltdown. When the reactors were finally opened, however, and melted fuel was found in them, that line went out the window. It became crystal clear that we had, in fact, been right on the precipice and only narrowly escaped a true nightmare.
Since then the principal response to any discussion of Three Mile Island has focused on the amount of time that has passed since the event. That was then. This is now. Procedures are better. The engineering is better. Don't worry.
Then there was Chernobyl. The nightmare happened. A meltdown occurred, and we are living with the dead zone it created to this day. Entire towns and cities were evacuated and have never been repopulated.
But, that's Russia, is the response. The Russians are sloppy. Their work was poor. They used designs we would never work with. That could never happen here. Don't worry.
And then came Fukushima. The Japanese are not the Russians. They are as good with technology and engineering as anyone on the planet. If they can't control the safety risks, who can? This was not decades ago. It was present day. What happened to our having learned our lessons?
Fukushima demanded a new response. The scope of the disaster, in the heart of one of the most advanced, most industrialized nations on earth suggested all nuclear plants might pose a risk. There needed to be a new spin, a new explanation.
And, so the line became that Fukushima was the product of unique natural events that would never be duplicated anywhere else. A massive earthquake and a tsunami hit the plant. No one could have anticipated that. No one could have engineered against it. We'll never see the like again. No other plant is vulnerable to the same forces. Relax. Don't worry.
Too bad it's not true.
What happened to the reactors at Fukushima, and continues to happen to this day, was not caused directly by an earthquake nor was it caused by a tsunami. It was caused by one thing, a loss of power. That's it, plain and simple, and the exact same thing could happen to any nuclear power plant in the United States.
When the earthquake hit in Japan it did two things. It triggered an automatic shutdown of the reactors at Fukushima, and it knocked out the power lines to the site, which would have provided supplemental power. Period.
The earthquake did not demolish the reactors. It did not breach containment. It did not flatten the structures on site.
Similarly, the tsunami did not strike the reactors. It did not crush the structures. It did not flatten anything on site.
What the tsunami did do was to carry away the diesel fuel tanks for the back up generators, which were designed to provide power to the reactors in the event of a loss of power from offsite. In fact, after the earthquake, when the reactors shut down and power from outside had been lost, for about an hour the backup generators worked and maintained power to the site. It was only when the tsunami struck, and fuel for the generators was lost, that this source off power too went off line.
What's the big deal about a loss of electrical power? Everything. It is, in fact, the difference between a smooth, cold shutdown of a nuclear plant and a catastrophic meltdown.
A nuclear reactor generates massive amounts of heat. Even after it is "turned off", that heat takes a huge amount of time to dissipate. That means that the cooling system circulating through the plant and cooling the reactors has to continue to function for days after any shutdown. Without getting lost in the intricate details of nuclear power plant construction, different types of valves and the physics involved, suffice it to say this. If you don't have electrical power, you don't have any way to run the pumps that move the water through the system and to operate the myriad of valves that control that system and all its safety components. That means the system is going to overheat, your fuel is going to meltdown, and you are going to have massive problems. Want to know what that looks like? Just watch any of the news footage of the events that took place at Fukushima in the aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami.
There is one last backup source of electrical power in nuclear plants, batteries. In Japan, plants have enough battery power to run for eight hours. In the United States, that figure is four hours.
Seen in this light, Fukushima is not an aberration. It is a model for what could happen almost anywhere. Power was lost there due to an earthquake and resulting tsunami. Power could be lost at another location for any number of different, more prosaic reasons.
Fukushima sea water radiation
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was an energy accident at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, initiated primarily by the tsunami of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011. The damage caused by the tsunami produced equipment failures, and without this equipment a Loss of Coolant Accident followed with nuclear meltdowns. | Photo: | Fukushima, Japan, Nuclear, Disaster, Tsunami, Radiation, Reactor,
In fact, power is lost at nuclear power plants in this country all the time. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and simple mechanical glitches do force nuclear power plants to shut down. The same phenomena knock out transmission lines bringing power from offsite. With some regularity, therefore, here on American soil we are reduced to diesel generators as the only real thing standing between us and a meltdown.
That may sound alarming enough, but let's consider this as well. Diesel generators fail. You take a diesel generator, stick it in a structure at a nuclear facility and leave it sitting unused for extended periods of time, and it will not necessarily fire up and run flawlessly when you decide you need it. It may not start. It may start and then stop. This also happens with some regularity on US soil, leaving plants not only operating on diesel generator power but with a fraction of the power and redundancy intended.
So far we've talked only about safety and natural disasters. What are the implications for the security of nuclear power plants? What does all this mean when we start talking about terrorist threats?
Let's consider this scenario. I knock out power lines coming into a plant from outside and then assault the plant. The plant shuts down in response to the attack per procedure at every nuclear plant in the world. We are now already on generator power.
Next, I ignore the control room, the hardened reactor dome and all the other central features of the plant. I focus all my energy on the generators. I do not have to demolish them. I do not have to obliterate them. All I have to do is damage them enough to render them inoperable. In fact, actually, I don't have to damage them at all if I can instead damage the diesel fuel tanks or so contaminate the diesel fuel as to make it useless. Generators don't run for long without diesel.
Once I have done that, even if the reactor is untouched, the control room still secure and the bulk of the plant unscathed I have lit a four-hour wick. The only thing standing between us and a meltdown on US soil will be a stack of batteries, which, if they have been kept fully charged, might buy us four hours to regain control of the plant, repair or replace the generators, bring in fuel from outside, etc.
Good luck. It's not going to happen.
Here's the bottom line. What killed Fukushima was not a unique series of events that could never be replicated elsewhere. What killed Fukushima and caused the cascade of catastrophic events that continue to this day was simply a loss of electrical power. We need to accept that. We need to ponder the implications, and we need to start moving now to ensure that the layers of redundancy built into our safety systems are greatly enhanced. Otherwise we are going to pay the same price that the Japanese continue to pay to this day. Just up river from our largest city is Indian Point. If we are not careful it maybe become Fukushima on the Hudson.