The next steps

20 April 2012

As I write this, the one-year anniversary of Fukushima Daiichi is creating a media flurry, with press conferences held, reports published, and conclusions shared.

By Will Dalrymple

In particular, I have enjoyed learning about the US industry’s plans, dubbed FLEX, to mitigate a station blackout caused by an extreme natural disaster such as a tsunami. They consist of extending on-site battery life by shedding loads, and of sprinkling emergency equipment—generators, pumps, hoses, compressed air for valve actuators—around the site. The plan extends the industry’s response to the risks to nuclear plants posed by the September 11, 2001 attacks. The plan is easy to understand. It is not expensive to implement ($1-2 million/reactor). It is not elegant. I like it for all of these reasons. It appeals to my intuitive sense of how things work in an emergency, when what you need is lots of people, and lots of stuff. And it seems to go along with what I understand to be the essential nature of a nuclear power plant, which is to be hopelessly complicated. (This is not to say that risks are taken lightly in the USA; for comparison, see also our article on part of a long-term joint US industry-regulatory project to reappraise the risks posed to US nuclear power plants by earthquakes, pp. 18-22. The project, in addition to being hopelessly complicated, is also hard to understand; it is unclear at this stage whether or not it will be expensive to implement).

But really the post-Fukushima response in the USA is a sideshow to the main event. There is essentially no tsunami risk for US stations. And those issues that have arisen as a result of the accident, such hardened vents and spent fuel pool cooling, are in my opinion relatively insignificant.

The real show is in Asia Pacific, where tsunamis are a clear and present danger. Coastal nuclear locations are great for access to cold cooling water, and hard to avoid for countries on islands or peninsulas. Making Asian coastal nuclear sites tsunami-proof may prove to be a big challenge.

So in general, nuclear power has a lot to lose in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, India, and Southeast Asia. (See also our profiles of post-Fukushima regulatory changes in the first three countries on pp. 12-15).

This past week, I have also been hearing about estimates of the health risks caused by the emission of so much radiation. Some radiation health professionals are now stating that the doses received are likely to be too small to have much effect (according to a 1 March meeting of the Health Physics Society). The largest health effect is likely to be psychological.

It is a great relief to me to think that the event is unlikely to have major health effects, as I remember my own personal feelings of horror and dread as the accident played out a year ago. But there are two troublesome strings attached to that conclusion. First, those statistics depend on an uncompromising policy of evacuation. The saddest victims of this crisis are Fukushima Daiichi’s neighbours, some of whom continue to be displaced from their homes and communities (see account, March 2012, p. 27). They are not likely to forget their misfortune, nor those who they feel are responsible.

This leads to my second point: the costs of evacuation and cleanup are likely to be huge, in terms of public relations and in terms of actual capital. In October 2011, Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda said that the country would spend at least JPY 1 trillion ($13 billion) on cleanup, according to Reuters. That no-one has died from the accident is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the continuation of nuclear power in the region. In the interests of Asian nuclear power development as a whole, what Japan now needs to demonstrate is that TEPCO, the nuclear utility concerned, can now survive even this.

-This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International magazine.

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