By Matt Palmer
First of all, I have to say that PBS’s Frontline makes some fantastic shows. The journalism is generally very good. I watched an interesting show a week ago about the Fukushima nuclear disaster. (see link above to watch the show online) The show chronicled the events of the earthquake and resulting tsunami last year, and how it led to the Fukushima nuclear plant essentially being overwhelmed.
There are lots of interesting moments in the program, and many point to hubris on behalf of the Japanese government and the consortium that built and ran the plant. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not unusual in Japan, and historical records pointed to big events happening in the area. In addition, the plant could have been planned and engineered better. Of course, it is always easy to criticize from 20/20 hindsight.
The impacts of the Japanese tsunami, and the destruction of the nuclear plant has seriously damaged the credibility of nuclear energy. The German government has vowed to shut down their existing nuclear plants ahead of schedule. The result of this is that they must now turn back to burning coal for electricity. Other countries also face big decisions with regards to a nuclear present and future, including Japan.
America’s nuclear fleet will be done by mid-century, and with no new plants being built to take up the slack, the implications are enormous.
There is no doubt that nuclear energy has big issues. They are hugely expensive, take a long time to build, and the decommissioning is arduous. When they are operational though, they are a clean and efficient way to produce electricity. Sighting of these plants is incredibly important. One would look at some of Japan’s plants and question the thinking of where they are. Given the frequency of earthquakes, perhaps it is not the best technology to be using there. But are there safe places to sight nuclear plants?
New nuclear technologies have tremendous potential. Newer small plants can be very effective. Thorium reactors do not have the same issues as traditional nuclear. Thorium cannot not be used to build bombs. There is more thorium available than uranium, and my understanding is that the spent fuel can be burned up to create extra electricity and thereby reducing or eliminating storage issues.
Clearly what happened in Japan was troubling, but abandoning nuclear has all sorts of major implications both in the short and long-term. Every energy technology brings positive and negative consequences. How do we balance the concerns and impacts against the positives, and the realities of our increasing needs?