Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
The Nuclear Conversation, Post-Quake
Monday, March 14, 2011
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Neil Todreas, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, talked about the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan. Earlier in the show, Joseph Romm, senior fellow at Center for American Progress and founder of the blog, ClimateProgress.org, discussed U.S. nuclear energy policy in the aftermath of last week's earthquake.
Natural disasters have put Japan at risk for one of the greatest energy disasters in human history. Cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant, 160 miles from Tokyo, were knocked out by last week's 8.9-magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami. Without these systems, reactors began to overheat, resulting in explosions that threaten to release catastrophic amounts of radiation.
Joseph Romm puts the danger in perspective:
It's clearly worse than Three Mile Island, not as bad as Chernobyl. But now there have been explosions at two different nuclear reactors...There's the risk of two or three partial meltdowns happening simultaneously, which has never happened before.
Simultaneous meltdowns are an unprecedented danger, but so was the seismic activity that triggered this scenario. No earthquake approaching the magnitude of last Friday's had hit Japan in over 140 years; nuclear power plants in the country have never had to absorb a crisis this bad. Professor Neil Todreas said that it remains to be seen how much of the damage was unavoidable, and how much the result of inadequate planning.
The situation with the tsunami was an unexpected situation, the degree of it. Plants actually survived the earthquake in that they were shut down and emergency power from their on-site diesel generators was provided and doing the pumping. Then, half an hour later, because the quake occurred 250 miles out to sea and the wave moves about 500 miles an hour, the tsunami came and flooded the power systems that were being used. What I don't know is what the anticipated design conditions for the tsunami were, and why did these systems get flooded?
An extended global conversation about nuclear power safety is sure to follow these events. The discussion has already started in the United States, where the desire for nuclear expansion has traditionally been balanced with concerns for public health. Joseph Romm said that the case of Fukushima gives ammunition to opponents of nuclear power, who question whether any preparedness or contingency measures could adequately safeguard a plant from disaster.
The earthquake and tsunami just overwhelmed these systems. They evacuated 180,000 people, and I think even senators like Joe Lieberman, who have been pretty favorably disposed to nuclear, said we need to put a halt to new plants in this country until we understand exactly what the failure modes have been in these Japanese plants.
"We have plants exposed to tsunami risk, earthquake risk and flooding risk," said Romm, "so I think this is a time to take a look."
Meanwhile, many are watching the situation at Fukushima and wondering what's the worst case scenario. So far, there have been explosions in the buildings that surround reactors, and many workers have been injured, but there is still no immediate threat to the public. Professor Todreas said that's because the casing around the reactor itself is still intact; he's optimistic that's not going to change.
They have to see that the containment vessel, the stainless steel large vessel around the reactor, is intact. If it's intact, radiation will not be released from these reactors. The situation here is complicated because of the tsunami and earthquake; there are a number of plants involved, not just one. The situation so far is that these containments are intact, and I'm fairly confident they will remain intact.