Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan's Nuclear Accident Continues

I am stunned! I have spent the last few days watching the events unfold through a variety of media. In spite of who you listen to, or what you read, these events are going to have enormous impact on global public health, economy, and environment for many years to come; and it will take weeks, months, or even years for us to begin to comprehend these impacts. The comparison everyone is making is “it isn’t as bad as Chernobyl.” We’ll see, as if it really makes any difference.

Just a few comments on where my thinking has been.

This was not just an accident at a nuclear power plant…this was a number of incredible malfunctions at four, (possibly) six, individual reactors and their support facilities. These were older American design, operated in one of the most technologically advanced country in the world. There is no clue as to how to deal with the events that are still out of control, and may continue unabated for who knows how long. At this writing, the “suicide” workers are being sent back in to do what they can.

Human suffering aside, the financial impacts of this accident will tax the Japanese, the US, and the rest of the world’s economies. Early estimates were $50-200 billion. I predict globally over $1 trillion. Forget the cost of replacing these reactors; what is it going to cost to control, seal and stabilize, and clean-up? Who will pay for that? I bet the insurance companies are glad they are not part of this. We will see the US recalculating the Price Anderson Act.

The ramifications to the US will be not only increasing the already unaffordable cost of new reactors, but the enormous amount of money that will go into re-studying and analyzing those 102 plants we now have in operation, and retrofitting them to current standards. Some will probably be shut down; many of the license extensions rubber stamped by the NRC will be revoked; new designs will be recalculated. The “new” era of small modular reactors, designed to be cheaper to build, will face the same scrutiny and financial burdens because it is really the same technology facing the same issues as the big plants. If there was debate as to the cost-effectiveness of plant construction before March 11, that dialogue is virtually over.

The other significant issue deals with nuclear waste. In Japan, the major problem is not so much the melting fuel in the reactor vessels, but the exposed spent fuel rods stored in basic swimming pools there, in the US, and all over the world. Once the pool is breached and the rods are uncovered, either by accident or terrorism, there has been no planning or technical methodology developed to deal with it. The US is sending fire engines with high pressure pumps to spray sea water into the buildings…for how long, nobody knows.

Here at Humboldt Bay, our spent fuel was put into storage casks and inserted into a below grade vault, at great cost. At least it is safe from our potential earthquake and tsunami risk. The enormous cost of dealing with this high level waste will now have to be addressed, rather than pushing it off to future generations.

And of course, to me, there is the concern and emotion I feel for people…the impacted citizens of Japan, and all the other unknowns who will be exposed to radiation from this accident. There is no threshold for radiation exposure…no set number where everything is ok…any exposure has potential for cellular disruption. I also pine for the environment…the diversity of life (as we saw impacted by Chernobyl), the effect on food chains (natural and human), the loss of contaminated land and ecosystems; the whole social and biological part of our existence.

One last dig….amazing to follow as many of the news media outlets that I could. My perception is that the right/conservative media was so concerned with the economic impacts to industry and production, and how this will effect business. Their in-depth reporting centered of a few “experts” from the nuclear industry who kept saying everything was fine since it wasn’t like Chernobyl. Most of what I saw was O’Reilly and his ilk laughing and making fun of those who are impacted the most. Very sad. No real constructive input as to the overwhelming implications of what this all really means. No Republican leadership as to what we will do…I guess they are to busy going to the bank.

In today’s radical fiscal environment, it will be interesting to see how long the nuclear corporate welfare will survive. Expensive energy? Looks like renewables are going to be our future.

Solar Power to the people…as well as other things!

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