This past Saturday I reprinted a political cartoon that questioned the future of nuclear energy. I got two comments on it, citing the age of the reactors in Japan and implying that nuclear can be safe. Then I received a comment from regular reader and sometimes guest poster, Elle. It was long enough and thoughtful enough to have a post of its own (with her permission of course.) Here’s Elle’s thoughts on this matter:
The basic technology of the boiling water reactors (BWRs) in Japan is from the 1970s and 1980s, with upgrades being constant. The idea for a boiling water reactor was hatched in the 1950s.
Regarding the safety of BWR plants, in my opinion and writing as a retired nuclear engineer, every nuclear engineer who swore by the BWRs’ safety must eat crow (to say the absolute very least, and with great sympathy for what is a horrible situation in Japan). Nuclear engineers are trained in risk assessment and so planning for the worst case. Manuals that stack up to many feet high address everything, step by step and with numerous permutations depending on what was available in a disaster, from flooding to earthquakes to multiple failures to a rogue airplane hitting the containment structure to more. The size of the earthquake and tsunami that afflicted Japan were not unprecedented. Designers should have considered such an earthquake and tsunami, particularly insofar as anticipating a complete loss of power to run the motors that run cooling water pumps. That the diesel generators to be used for backup power were in the basement (so I have read) boggles the mind.
“This is not Chernobyl” is a platitude that ignores the massive devastation that is reality now and will be for years in this part of Japan. I am embarrassed to have said in the past that nuclear power in the U.S. (and by implication, Japan) is safe. Those poor people in Japan, especially the on-site workers who had nothing to do with the design of their plant. Never would I have forced nuclear power on anyone. But now I would not even suggest it without a complete analysis of what went wrong in Japan and the possibility of this going wrong elsewhere in the world. Coal powered plants (the leading source for electric power) have their evils and do their own kind of
pollution. This will continue to have to be weighed against the risk of the pollution of nuclear power.