Late last week, I was doing background research for a possible story on the future of nuclear energy. Has global warming tipped the risk-benefit scales in nuclear's favor? Can any of the next-generation reactor designs claim to be truly accident-proof--and terrorist-proof? Are we any closer to solving the waste problem?

Fukushima-1.JPG
The Fukushima Daiichi power plant, photographed in 2002. Via the Wikimedia Commons.

This week, those questions feel a lot less hypothetical. The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on Friday damaged multiple reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 150 miles from Tokyo; since then, explosions and fires at the plant have released radiation to the atmosphere. With cooling pumps out of order, workers are struggling to keep the reactors cool using seawater, which requires venting radioactive steam. Tens of thousands of people living nearby the plant have been evacuated, and more than one hundred thousand in a larger danger zone are being asked to confine themselves to their homes. As the New York Times reported, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan "pleaded for calm, but warned that radiation had already spread from the crippled reactors and there was 'a very high risk' of further leakage."

Workers are attempting to bring the reactors under control, and to prevent spent fuel rods, which are kept submerged in water, from overheating and deepening the crisis. We don't know yet what toll this emergency will take on the people of Japan and on the environment. But policymakers are even now beginning to gauge how this nuclear crisis may affect the fate of nuclear energy in the United States, where the looming threat of global warming has elevated nuclear to the "lesser evil" in the minds of many, including some of its former foes.

For the first time in decades, new nuclear plants are in the works here in the U.S., with the blessing of President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (Hear Steven Chu talk about nuclear power.) Though Slate's David Weigel reported on Tuesday that the crisis in Japan has not weakened Washington's support for nuclear, some top House Democrats are calling for an investigation and hearings on the safety of the United States' nuclear plants. Meanwhile, Switzerland is suspending plans for new plants, and Germany has put a temporary hold on extensions of current plants, according to the New York Times.

What can we learn from what's happening in Japan? Is it possible to compare the risks and benefits of nuclear energy with the risks and benefits of fossil fuels? Can we build a truly accident-proof reactor? In the coming days and weeks, we'll be using this space to bring you opinions on these questions from a number of nuclear and environmental experts. In the meantime, we invite you to share your thoughts on the crisis in Japan and what it means for the future of nuclear energy here in the United States and around the world.

Read more articles from Inside NOVA's "Nuclear After Japan" series.

User Comments:

What Obama sees as an end all solution, the public sees as "A" solution, in an all the above approach. It is a component, and a major component in the all of the above approach. It must not be downplayed or demonized. It is without a doubt the most efficient means of producing electricity. That is in line with coal and natural gas ...an all the above approach is key though. Those who discount any one form of energy are discounting the millions it may serve.

Lets keep our heads on straight. There are already clear designs for the spent fuel ...if we use them.

Focus is key....it is a component in an all the above approach that provides the electricity to the homes and factories.

Engineers never go in to a project thinking hey lets design something worse than before....American engineers always are looking to enhance the design over even what was done the year before, have a little faith!

I believe that when looked at objectivly nuclear power is still the best, safest, cleanest way to produce electrical energy. The nuclear industry is one of the best at using operating experience to improve safety, there will be many lessons learned from this event and the nuclear plants going forward will be even more robust and even safer.

I was hoping that we would build advanced reators soon, but the public is fickle, and after seeing these old designs go up in smoke and release radiation, I think the Issue is dead for now, so lets continue with WInd, Solar, Geo-thermal and Wave energy, at least so far their downside is it just stops working or kills a few birds.

I'm all for getting as much of our electricity as possible from solar, wind (even though turbines kill thousands of birds and bats daily - not a "few"), and geothermal.

However, the *only* way we can get off of coal is to have a massive expansion of nuclear ... and doing it right like the French do with reprocessing of spent fuel. No one has ever come up with anything else that can get us where we need to be without using nuclear. Therefore, I personally hope that the tragedy in Japan will not deter us from doing what we need to do.

Earthquakes will happen and they may damage a plant, cause a radiation release, and kill people (maybe even thousands). As bad as that sounds, the alternative is the consequences of climate change primarily caused by coal-fired plants. That is much, much worse.

Kevin

The larger slower moving windmills, (200ft) kill few birds due to their size, slow speed and visibility. They don't kill thousands of birds daily, unless you are counting worldwide. Trade offs are necessary, I'll accept the birds over nuclear fallout.

If every structure built or remodeled were covered in solar panels, we would have a 50% reduction in Need from oil and coal in 5 years.
Most need is during the day and cloud cover does little to reduce solar production (ck Germany, most cloudy nation), geothermal and hydro and wave can fill the nightly voids... Personally, I am easily covered at home by 10 panels and battery back-up, got no need for the grid at all.

Dave, do you really think that the thousands of already existing turbines are going to be replaced? I can tell you that one farm in Tehachipi, CA kills thousands of birds daily. One farm.

I stand by my statement ... no one has shown how you can get us 100% off of coal without a significant contribution from nuclear...

Kevin, you seem to just brush off the idea of a radiation release as something liveable. Do you even realize how long that radiation sticks around? Do you realize that it would then contaminate food sources? Are you informed of how much harm mining the materials needed inflicts on the environment? Probably haven't thought about that one, eh?

Dave has it right ... solar for each home or community and use geothermal, hydro, and wind as a supplement.

I doubt you truly care much for birds anyways. When they were falling dead from the skies, you probably just brushed that one off as normal.

Thank you to all for participating in this conversation. To support a civil exchange on these vital issues, we ask that you refrain from personal attacks directed at other posters. Thank you for helping us keep this blog a meaningful forum for discussion and debate.

If I as a homeowner wanted to supply my annual 12,000 kWh to power the electric needs of my house, I could purchase $60,000 in 10 kW of rooftop solar panels, or I could invest in $7500 of 1.5 kW of a nuclear plant. Both produce about the same annual energy. Nuclear provides base load generation 24/7 which wind and solar power cannot. Because of the intermittent nature of wind and solar, and because we do not yet have affordable battery storage, the maximum amount of energy wind and solar can contribute to the total energy is limited to about 30%. We can use coal and nuclear to supply base load power. However the nuclear option seems to be a necessity in the long range outlook as coal supplies dwindle and the climate change problem increases with time.

It is no dount a disaster but certainly not in the sense of the Tsnumi.Two things to remember:
1. Measurable amounts of radiation can be one million times less than dangerous. Bananas, Brazil nuts, tobacco etc all have enough radiation that they trigger port monitors .
2. For concern about Tokyo remember that Las Vegas is 65 miles from the US test site where 500 nuclear bombs (a large number above ground) were tested with no danger to Las Vegas

Hi Rico,

No, I'm not trying to brush off the severe dangers that a radiation release would entail. I'm aware of all the effects you point out and agree that they would be extremely terrible ... most especially the loss of human life.

My point was simply that if the choice is to build nuclear plants and risk the *possibility* of something like that happening or continue burning coal at the present rate and suffer the consequences to the whole entire planet from the climate change that will result from our doing so, then I personally vote for the former.

And I don't like the thousands of birds being killed daily. That's another reason why I'm pro-nuclear.

I'm sorry I didn't communicate well enough for you to avoid missing my points entirely...

Kevin

All wind generators have tip speeds in the 200 mph range even as they get larger. The bigger ones only appear to be running slower because the blades are longer.

In light of the present situation in Japan, I will try to broach the subject of "safety" in a more delicate manner. The fact is-- most technology advances that mankind has embraced since the start of the Industrial Revolution have carried a potential risk to human health.

Nuclear power has, considering the years of continous delivery of energy and the few incidents of potential and/or realized danger to a population-- been one of the safest.

Now consider the coal industry to feed Fossil-Fueled Steam Plants that are in daily use by the many thousands throughout the world. In the process of mining the coal to feed the plants, and for other heating or propulsion applications, there have been many, many deaths --going back to the late 1800's. A mine collapse or fire -- black lung disease, and so on.

Even with the advent of the automobile, there were accepted risks by the users of this new transportation mode. They wore goggles to protect the eyes, "car coats" to protect themselves from the elements, and when there were accidents they were often very serious, if not fatal. Yes-- modern manufacturers have made the automobile much safer than in those days, but there is still risk attached to each and every use of the automobile-today.

My point here is that there has never been an incorporating of a technology that would improve the living conditions of the masses, that did not have a price of increased risk attached to that incorporation.

Will alternative energy sources prove to be statistically safer than Nuclear Power (for the same power output)?

Possibly in 20-30 years. But for now let's just consider the fact that the record shows Nuclear Power to have caused far, far less death and injury than any other large-scale method of power generation Man has ever devised.

High energy demand NOW is the issue: Not decades from now!

Rapidly increasing global climate change, resulting from anthropogenic greenhouse gases is also with us NOW, and as population growth and energy demand is increasing, what are the options?

Might there be serious discussion of small mass produced Pebble Bed Reactors used locally which could be replaced as needed as one might any rented piece of office equipment, truck, or automobile?

Even this would be a stop-gap measure until population growth, resource demand, and energy use can be reduced considerably.

There is no free lunch!

Maybe we need to find a solution for constant power needs. With solar as the cleanest and most independent it seems the logical choice but then you have someone saying "Oh, well, I couldn't watch my evening prime time shows." Or whatever other mediocre thing they're throwing on TV. Or, maybe humans as a whole need to stop being so dependent on our electronic devices and spend time with other people? Maybe? Learn that for centuries people have been just fine without these little gadgets that we all take for granted. Don't get me wrong, I love my xbox. I'm a gamer and couldn't see my life without it, but.. perhaps.. it's not as important as the planet we all live on. ;)

what will happen if the reacter die's

Why when the experts were designing Japans nuclear reactors, did they not include a gravity fed water supply to the reactors? I fear it is because Engineers are preoccupied with defeating nature instead of using it. I notice also they didn’t include it in the reactors here. It’s unfortunate; it more than likely would have prevented the problem.
I think adding water to a fuel pile that has melted is futile and will worsen the problem. But if they are set on that solution, why are they wasting time trying to supply electricity to pumps that are probably compromised? They could tap into the plumbing and supply water directly from the fire engines. I’m sure they didn’t think to supply a fire department connection for that purpose. At any rate, one could be made and supply lines attached so water could be supplied at a distance. That would remove people from the immediate vicinity of the reactors. And confirm whether or not the plumbing is compromised.
However, I believe the solution is in dilution of the fissionable material. They should use boron and sand to slow the reaction. Then concrete with a lead component should be applied to the top of the whole thing to seal the reactors and the spent fuel pools. The lead, if the concrete is compromised by heating, would serve to further dilute the fuel.
I heard that some people in Japan were wondering what they had done to deserve all of this. We often speak of what we are leaving to our children. That time seems so far away so we tend to ignore it. But the disaster we are watching is the legacy left by the ancestors of those living in Japan now. They by building on a flood plain condemned there children to the tsunami. Today we ignore the consequences of global warming, pollution and population. We waste our resources without knowing for sure what will replace them. The day will come when the future is now and our children WILL wonder what they did to deserve it. We must bear in mind the Earth does not care if humans are here or not. If every human disappeared tomorrow the world will go on.
Sorry, just thinking out loud. I hope the tsunami will cause planners in Japan to limit reconstruction in areas prone to these events. If it doesn’t they should at least consider building elevated structures at intervals around populated areas. They could be designed with water storage and might include restaurants and stores. In the event of flood people could use these for evacuation and shelter. Food and water would already be there.
If the population hadn’t been concentrated in tsunami areas we would be concerned with the destruction of croplands and admiring the forces of nature.
We are not immune from this problem. The Cascadia fault in the Pacific Northwest will produce a similar quake and tsunami and likely larger. People living inland in this area don’t worry about tsunami’s most are completely ignorant of the floods a dam break can produce. They look just like tsunamis. If you look at the images in Japan you cannot, without knowing, differentiate between a tsunami event and a dam break. The dams in the NW many of which are large earthen structures are built above highly populated areas including Portland, Oregon And the lower Columbia River Basin.
It’s too bad they can’t supply images in gamma rays of the reactors it might give them enough insight into the problem to realize the futility of there efforts and prompt them to bury the reactor before the problem gets worse. If they could visualize the reactors as extremely bright lights so bright in fact that hiding behind brick walls won’t shade you from it they might be able to react better. The long term consequences are in the particulates. Background radiation is high in the environment; it is in and of itself dangerous. The particulate is its own environment the radiation levels there exponentially higher. Plutonium is arguably the most toxic substance on Earth. It can and will cause health problems for anyone exposed to it for thousands of years! We should stop tempting fate and bury the reactors before we spread the problem further. Having been a firefighter I know the challenges the workers at the plant are facing. By now they are becoming ill with radiation sickness yet they persist. Like the firefighters at the Twin Towers their training told them that the towers would collapse, they are sacrificing themselves knowingly to allow others to remove themselves from the hazard. The government of Japan should honor that sacrifice and evacuate as many as is particle.
The news today reports they are making progress at reactor #3 they say the radiation levels are coming down. Their readings may be coming down but it is because the particles are being washed from the top of the reactors into areas that provide some shielding. If water is being applied to the fuel they would see vast amounts of steam. Even if they did get water to the fuel it would, pardon me, be like wizzing on the Sun!


William Miller,
Vancouver, WA.

I would like to praise PBS, Nova and Nova Sciencenow for the excellent programming they provide. I have been a long time fan and have raised my children and grandchildren with your aid. Most science programming avaiable elsewhere today can't even keep their facts straight. So I thank You and My Children thank You!

Why use fossil fuel ? think and use electricity
http://www.mybusinessislove.blogspot.com/

GREEN ENERGY GENERATION
Monday, March 21, 2011
marine green energy
with my generation methodology 3000000000 KWH is generated in 24 hours then why use fossil fuels.

DEAR Madam / sir, KINDLY UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF OCEAN POWER GENERATION.
This is one of its kind in the entire world and i am doing a research on green power generation in man made underground river. This river is dug from the bottom of the ocean bed the water above the ocean bed acts as the head.
The water velocity , the water volume and the water drag will be the same for life time and the ocean is the natural dam we don't have to construct a dam.
As the water travels down the underground river by the law of gravity from the p1 the very first power generation unit to the very last power generation unit i.e. p20 power is generated in all individual power generation units because of the river head and the river velocity head because of gravity with sufficient gradient available in the man made underground river . p1 will be the up stream and water running down to p2 with the gradient and gravity will be the down stream.
In this method the power generation will not depend on the annual rain fall .
EVERY THING IS MAN MADE 1) GRADIENT 2) THE ANGLE OF WATER FLOW 3) ARRANGEMENT OF TURBINES ONE BELOW THE OTHER ETC ALL IS MAN MADE.

Always p1 generated electricity will be for sale and p2 to p20 i.e 19 individual power generation units electricity will be used for pump-turbine consumption.

THE METHOD OF GREEN ENERGY GENERATION.

KINDLY DIG A 100 METERS UNDERGROUND WELL ( THE DIGGING STARTS FROM BELOW THE 20 METERS DEEP OCEAN BED) THE TOTAL DEPTH OF THE WELL WILL BE 120 METERS DEEP AND THIS WILL ACT AS THE VERTICAL HEAD.
NOW DIG A MAN MADE UNDERGROUND RIVER FROM THE VERY BOTTOM OF THE WELL.
THE MAN MADE UNDERGROUND RIVER WILL BE 100 METERS WIDE AND 20 METERS DEEP.
THE TOTAL LENGTH OF THE MAN MADE UNDERGROUND RIVER WILL BE 40 KILOMETERS SLANTINGLY SLOPPILY DOWN ENDING AT 350 METERS BELOW THE MAIN SEA LEVEL AND UNDER THE EARTH.
ON THIS UNDERGROUND RIVER CONSTRUCT POWER GENERATION STATIONS AT EVERY 1.5 KMS DISTANCE.
THERE WILL BE 20 INDIVIDUAL POWER GENERATION STATIONS P1 TO P20 .
P1 WILL BE AT 130 METERS BELOW THE MSL AND IN P1 THE TOTAL ELECTRICITY GENERATED WILL BE
P= 10 X 96000 CUBIC METERS PER SECOND X 130 METERS HEAD X .95 EFFICIENCY = 118000000 KWH GREEN ELECTRICITY GENERATED EVERY ONE HOUR.
P 2 TO P 20 THE 19 INDIVIDUAL POWER GENERATION UNITS WILL GENERATE P2= 10 X 96000 CUBIC METERS PER SECOND X 20 METERS HEAD X .95 EFFICIENCY = 18000000 KWH ELECTRICITY IS GENERATED PER ONE HOUR AND IF WE MULTIPLY P2 GENERATED ELECTRICITY WITH 19 INDIVIDUAL UNITS THEN POWER GENERATED WILL BE 342000000 KWH EVERY ONE HOUR .

TO PUMP 96000 CUBIC METERS FROM 350 METERS TO ABOVE MSL 330000000 KWH IS THE HYDRAULIC POWER OF ELECTRICITY IS USED BY 24000 MW PUMP TURBINES (500 MW PUMP TURBINES EACH)

ONE SECOND INFLOWS FROM THE UNDERGROUND RIVER AND ONE SECOND PUMP OUTFLOWS WILL ALWAYS BE THE SAME

THANKING YOU
WITH REGARDS
C.S.BHASKAR

I'm sorry I usually have some clarity of thought but for some reason I can't seem to wrap my mind around this problem. Scientists have proposed that we sequester CO2 in sandstone or in old oil wells. I have no problem with burying the carbon. However, the other 2/3s of the molecule is oxygen are we not burying our oxygen supply? Or is there some other source of oxygen that I am not aware of? I kinda like the 21% mixture I'm breathing now. I would appreciate anyone's input that might shed some light on the subject.

The current Japanese event is a very sad thing.

I've worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel "Rad Decision" culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem - a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person -- as I've been hearing from readers. The novel is free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.

My media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I'm not an acknowledged "expert". I just do the nuclear stuff for a living. And I think I have explained it well in a non-yawn-producing manner. But it's a bit of a tree falling in a forest………

I believe there isn't a perfect energy solution - just options - each with their good and bad points. And we'll make better choices about our future if we first understand our energy present.

After watching the disaster in Japan I changed my mind. I did in fact think there was a place for nuclear energy in the worlds future. Now I'm sure there is not. The experts really have no clue what to do. It appears that nuclear reactors are perfectly safe as long as nothing happens. When it does it appears there is nothing that can be done about it. What I find most alarming though is the lack of thought involved in there emergency actions. All the actions have served to make the problem worse. Flooding the buildings with water reduced radiation levels by displacing the material from the top of the building. Unfortunately no one thought about where it was going. Now they have no idea what to do with all the contaminated water. And so on and so on. In the mean time new radiation is being released. Now we have Plutonium in the environment and no one was sure if it came from the reactor or not? The ocean is contaminated the atmosphere, drinking water, food supplies and the land mass around the reactors. Still no one is willing to make the hard choices. The radiation has reached the US. They say it is not an immediate health risk, that is not to say it is not a health risk. Do we wait until it is an immediate risk before we do something? Statistically the risk may be low. Personally I don't need the additional risk. I certainly don't think we have the right to expose our children. It is our responsibility to protect those that can't protect themselves. It may require us to turn off some lights. We should probably do that anyway. Someone needs to take charge of the situation in Japan! So far nature hasn't thrown anything else their way. In case they forget I will remind them Typhoon season is just around the corner. Considering the condition of the nuclear plant I can't imagine what it will look like in hundred mph winds and two feet plus rain. Unfortunately, I can imagine it will look much the way it does now going into it. Maybe the nuclear industry thinks this is the best way to come up with contingency plans for nuclear disasters. More and more I think they have no idea what to do. Either way it is becoming clear we can't afford nuclear as a general form of energy supply.

What I would really like to see on Nova
one of these weeks is an hour devoted to
an update on some of those new designs.
Focus on engineering requirements, particularly safety and efficiency.
Some related questions:

(1) How does the cooling work? Putting a
big bucket of water on top of the thing
(as featured in last week's episode) doesn't
strike me as a fundamental innovation. Is
there a design in which the reaction can be
shut down on demand, e.g., by mechanically separating the fuel elements?

(2) Does fuel recycling work? Cooling a
plutonium based core with liquid metallic sodium doesn't seem like a great idea either, for reasons that should be obvious to most Nova viewers.

(2) What is the actual efficiency of the
Thorium fuel cycle? Does it substantially
improve on the current Uranium based designs?
Is the rate of reaction easier to control?

Enough politics and polemics. I want to
hear from the engineers in the field, e.g.,
from Dr. Chu's colleagues in Berkeley.


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