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The recent earthquake (measured 9.0 on the Richter scale) and the consequent tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) and has caused much concern over nuclear power. In the immediate international panic that ensued, bloggers and news outlets have compared the tragedy at Fukushima Daiichi to the disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986 or the Three Mile Island (TMI) incident in the US in 1979. Some have even gone as far as to compare Fukushima with Hiroshima (to be fair, this was an alarmist headline to a story about someone affected by Hiroshima). Furthermore, the Chinese and American governments immediately put their nuclear expansion plans on hold and the Germans have moved to accelerate their withdrawal from nuclear energy. Spain, Russia, and Britain have ordered a comprehensive safety review of all their NPPs. Although any breach at a NPP, let alone a natural disaster of this magnitude, is of concern, it is necessary to put things in perspective.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, constructed between 1971 and 1979, consists of six boiling water reactors (BWRs) and is rated at about 4.7 GWe  and there were plans to upgrade it to 7.5 GWe by 2017. On March 11, 2011, when the tsunami hit the NPP, reactors 4, 5, and 6 were shut down for routine maintenance. The other reactors were shut down automatically as the earthquake was detected. The flooding caused by the tsunami knocked out the power generators to reactors 1, 2, and 3 which were required to cool and control the reactors. The earthquake and flooding also prevented immediate assistance being brought from elsewhere. Over the next ten days, there has been evidence of a partial core meltdown in reactors 1, 2, and 3, multiple fires have broken out in reactor 4, and the spent fuel rods of reactors 1, 2, 3, and 4 in their storage swimming pools began to heat up as water levels dropped precipitously. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation at the NPP, the Japanese government declared a containment zone of 2 km radius and extended it quickly to 3, 10, and then 20 kms. Finally, on March 20th, as the situation was brought under control, Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, announced that the plant would not re-open due to the heavy damage to the reactors and their buildings and radioactive contamination throughout the site. According to the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) which measures the severity of nuclear accidents, the accidents at reactors 1, 2, and 3 were at Level 5 in a 7-point scale – for comparison, Chernobyl was at Level 7, TMI was at Level 5, and the Vandellos incident was at Level 3. (For more on nuclear safety records, click here).

Much to the glee of anti-nuclear activists, the future of the nuclear power industry has been significantly damaged by the events in Japan. Given the natural propensity to fear that which one does not understand and the image of the mushroom cloud now indelibly printed on our minds by countless movies, newspaper and journal articles, and the internet, more and more people have started to question the safety of nuclear energy. This is quite unwarranted. It must be noted that the event that caused the crisis in Japan was an earthquake, not the failure of a NPP. In the chaotic aftermath, it is a true testimony to the procedures in place that the damage was contained and things are returning to normal despite massive damage in the region from the twin natural disasters. The three reactors that were online automatically shut down as the earthquake was detected; immediate generators were available on standby in case of the failure of the main generators; helicopters supplied hundreds of thousands of gallons of seawater to the engineers at the plant to maintain the fuel rods at a temperature within their safety range; the move by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to use seawater doped with neutron-absorbing boron to cool the reactors despite virtually guaranteeing the inusability of the reactors afterwards; volunteers worked despite the danger of overexposure to radiation to contain and clean up the damage; by every safety and procedures yardstick, the Japanese have handled the crisis remarkably well.

However, the critics have not attacked Fukushima specifically but point to it as a problem for nuclear energy as a whole. So what are the issues with nuclear energy?

Safety: It is true that waste products from nuclear reactors have to be stored carefully. Existing reactors do produce waste but these have been stored without accidents so far. However, waste cannot be the single criterion by which to attack an industry – if that were the case, we should be seeing groups attacking paper, gold, bottled water, and cotton as well. We don’t, and it is asinine to think that these industries do not produce toxic waste. We must also remember that the problems at Fukushima arose not from the operation of the NPP itself but from a natural disaster. Perhaps Fukushima should have been built more carefully, in an area less affected by the vagaries of nature, in Fukushima’s case, the sea. That is not entirely possible since power stations require large quantities of water for steam generation and in the case of nuclear plants, cooling and storing waste fuel (although NPPs have their own desalination station to provide pure water to the reactors). However, plants can indeed be built by large lakes and rivers inland. Although this is not a real alternative in Japan, a significant portion of the world’s land mass (and therefore its countries) is not situated around the circum-Pacific seismic belt, also known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, which accounts for 90% of the world’s earthquakes. Safety concerns raised by the Japanese experience, therefore, are not applicable to most countries in the world.

It is also true that other forms of energy have seen greater casualties on the job than nuclear power plants. Nonetheless, nuclear power has yet to grow past the stigma of Chernobyl – the repeated use of that one tragedy has taken on a Goebbelsian proportion. In 1986, a Soviet RBMK reactor went critical, killing two workers and 29 firefighters and emergency workers who were exposed to the radiation. Of the 600 workers at the plant, 134 were treated for acute radiation sickness. By 2000, a further 1,800 people in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus were diagnosed with complications arising from the tragedy. While these facts are commonly known, what is less well-known is the evacuation of 250,000 people from the nearby town of Pripyat by Soviet authorities. Also, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) conducted extensive studies into reactor safety and concluded that the RBMK had some serious design flaws and the operational procedures at the plant were extremely lax. Although it was impossible to say that the chance of accidents was zero, the AECB decided that it was very remote. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uses the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) to measure the gravity of nuclear accidents much like the Richter scale measure earthquakes. The scales rates incidents from 0 to 7, zero being a minimal breach of operating protocol and Chernobyl ranking at 7. From June 1995 to June 1996, seventy-three incidents were reported. Out of these, 35 were ranked zero or below scale (no safety significance), 27 were at Level 1 (anomaly beyond the authorised operating regime), 8 at Level 2 (significant spread of contamination inside the facility and/or overexposure of a worker), and only three at Level 3 (very small release of radioactivity to environment, severe spread of contamination within facility and/or acute health effects to a worker). Note that radiation leaks and acute health effects appear only at Level 3, meaning the rest of the “accidents” were largely benign. In the entire history of nuclear power, only eight serious accidents have occurred, with only one Level 7 incident (Chernobyl) and one Level 6 incident (Kyshtym). This is an exemplary record compared to almost any industry.

As tragic as Chernobyl was, the death toll stands at only 31. In comparison, 84 people died when the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off Newfoundland in 1982, 200 people died in a gas explosion in Guadalajara in 1992, 2,500 people died the failure of a hydro-dam in Macchu in 1979, and 53 people died in a coal mining disaster in Shanxi in 2003. Between 1969 and 1986, hydroelectric power plants have had eight accidents with 3,839 fatalities, coal power plants 62 accidents with 3,600 fatalities, oil power plants 63 with 2,070, natural gas plants 24 with 1,440, and nuclear power plants (NPP) a solitary accident with 31 deaths. Even if the injured are added to list of fatalities in the case of nuclear power, the number still stands at less than half of the deaths at hydroelectric plants.

Former chairman of Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), Reid Morden, succinctly explained the seven stages of the anti-nuclear lobby (June 1997 speech to the AECL): 1) Pretend that you have relevant scientific expertise, when you don’t, 2) When challenged on one misleading argument, simply move on to the next – always be a moving target, 3) Ignore the costs and risks of any energy alternative, 4) Talk about the consequences of a nuclear tragedy – never talk about risk or probability, 6) Always, always repeat. There is nothing like repetitions of a lie to make people think it’s the truth, and 7) Pretend you are interested in energy or the environment, when your real agenda is simply anti-nuclear, full stop.

Proliferation: The Acheson-Lilienthal report was perhaps the wisest and insightful memo received by an American president on nuclear issues. It stated that “there is no prospect of security against atomic warfare in a system of international agreements to outlaw such weapons controlled only by a system which relies on inspections and similar police-like methods. The reasons supporting this conclusion are not merely technical, but primarily the inseparable political, social, and organisational problems involved in enforcing agreements between nations each free to develop nuclear energy but only pledged not to use bombs.” Nuclear safeguards, such as they are, eventually only create legal barriers and slow the progress of a state determined to have weapons capability. Given the large number of countries in the world, these controls may seem to have a high success rate. However, when compared with the number of countries that wished to acquire weapons, the challenge by India, Israel, Pakistan, N. Korea, and South Africa and the threat of violation from Iran, the controls are found wanting, reinforcing the report’s conclusion.

The second question to consider regarding proliferation is the type of reactor – not all reactors are capable of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. The CANDU is perhaps the most proliferation-friendly of the lot. CANDU’s use of natural uranium, online refuelling, and use of heavy water makes it ideal for a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. However, CANDUs have never been exported without strict safeguards. Even then, there is much debate on how good a CANDU really in manufacturing weapons-grade plutonium – AECL scientists have consistently pointed out that the plutonium produced by a CANDU is between 60 and 70% pure, while a weapon requires at least 93%. In addition, the diversion of plutonium from a CANDU would produce local hot spots within the reactor core, resulting in less than optimal reactor performance. Although not strictly impossible to obtain plutonium from CANDUs, it remains prohibitively expensive, difficult, and risky. The latest generation of reactors are more proliferation-proof, which when combined with safeguards makes it virtually impossible to use for a weapons programme.

Myths abound regarding the Soviet RBMK reactor of Chernobyl fame. Although most people think the RBMK to be proliferation-friendly, Norwegian NGO Bellona reported in 2003 that the reactor fuel was never considered a source of fissile material. Given that the wet storage facility at the Leningrad Atomic Energy Station (LAES) contained fuel assemblies dating back to 1975 about to be moved into dry storage and that the LAES was the first RBMK reactor going online in 1973, it indicates that RBMK-generated fuel was not removed to be reprocessed into weapons material. Thus, even though the RBMK design is a descendant of plutonium-production reactors, it is inaccurate to characterize it in this category itself.

Environment: Invariably, critics of nuclear power cite environmental concerns as one of the main reasons nuclear power remains dangerous. However, contrary to the general clamour, nuclear power has the distinction of doing the least damage to the environment so far – according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), nuclear power’s contribution to radiation is less than 0.05% of the world’s release of radioactivity. A 1,000 MWe coal-fired power plant releases about 100 times as much radioactivity than a comparable NPP. Another issue of concern is radioactive waste. The amount of waste created at NPPs is far less than at other power plants – only 1.1% of nuclear fuel input is finally discarded as waste. However, the waste from NPPs is far more persistent (half-life for some radionuclides can be as high as 10,000 years). This is a problem that is yet to be satisfactorily solved by any country, the most popular idea being deep geological disposal. NPPs are however designed with storage silos on-site and many countries are able to store nuclear waste for several more decades (the amount is not as astronomical as some would choose to believe – Canada’s entire stockpile of nuclear waste would fill about three ice hockey rinks).

In the environmental debate, the key advantage of NPPs lie in their zero emission of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, or nitrous oxide. A single coal plant emits six million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 16,000 tonnes of nitrous oxide while a natural gas plant emits 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. In 2000 alone, the 438 NPPs operating worldwide saved 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), if all the world’s nuclear power were replaced by coal-fired power, the carbon footprint of the power industry would rise by about 34%. This is of course assuming that the world has enough coal and feasible means of transport to power plants to sustain such a heavy demand.

Nuclear critics such as Irene Kroch of the Nuclear Awareness Project (an apt acronym, NAP?) is outraged by this suggestion. She insists that if all stages of the nuclear process – mining, enrichment, transport, constructing reactors, decommissioning – are taken into account, then nuclear power does indirectly emit greenhouse gases. However, studies have shown that even this amount is over a hundred times less than emitted by plants using fossil fuel. NPPs come out favourably even when compared to “clean” energy – over the course of its life-cycle, coal produces about 1,000 CO2 emissions (grams/kilowatt-hour), solar between 60 and 150, wind between 3 and 22, and nuclear only 6. In terms of energy efficiency, nuclear power is again unbeatable – a ball of uranium the size of an orange can produce as much energy as 30,000 tonnes of coal. Other environmental costs critics of nuclear power ignore are the 7,000 tonnes of hazardous waste produced by a single solar power plant over the course of its 30-year lifetime through metals-processing alone. Meanwhile, wind farms require millions of kilogrammes of concrete and steel, thousands of square-kilometres of land, and are a major killer of birds.

Alternative energy: In response to the problems caused by pollution, alternatives such as wind, tidal, and solar energy have been pointed out. I am all for further research and development of these technologies but until they can replace traditional sources of power, we should not do away with nuclear power. Not to mention, these sources also have their own problems – solar panels are not sufficiently efficient and even if they were, many parts of the planet do not receive sufficient sunlight. Secondly, solar panels need vast acreage to be a significant source of energy. Similarly, wind turbines simply do not produce energy on the scale we need. Like solar panels, more turbines means more land is required, and these giant modern windmills certainly do not factor easily on the eyes. Tidal power is still in its infancy and no one is sure what its full potential is yet. The government of the Indian state of Gujarat has decided to set up a tidal power station by approximately 2013 and only then will we know if tidal power is truly a substitute for fossil fuel. Admittedly more predictable than wind and solar, tidal energy is still quite expensive and there are limited sites where such power stations can be situated.

No source of energy is truly completely green. It is always a question of balancing the costs with the benefits. So far, critics of nuclear power have been quite irrational in their hatred of the atom. The mere probability of a terrible accident is reason enough to stop all nuclear activity – risk is enough of a factor for nuclear critics to tip the scales against harnessing power from the atom. By that logic, no one could ever fly, drive, live in high rises, or even eat, for the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that about 5,000 people die of food poisoning in the US alone each year. However, effective procedures to govern the life-cycles of projects make risks, no matter how large, manageable. Otherwise, we will be no different from the witch hunters of the Church during the time of Galileo.