A Nuclear Safety Wake Up Call for Japan and the World

On March 11, Japan experienced its worst earthquake in the 140 years of recorded history of earthquake measurements and may have started to suffer from its worst—to date—nuclear incident. As I write in an analytic and opinion article for foreignpolicy.com, it appeared as of March 11 that the worst-case accident involving a reactor meltdown and substantial release of radioactive materials to the environment would likely be averted. But as the news has unfolded on March 12, the situation has worsened with reported high radiation levels and an explosion at the nuclear plant’s site.

 

In the foreignpolicy.com article, I recommend that Japan needs to reevaluate its increasing dependence on nuclear power for electricity. Most recently, Japan generates about 30 percent of its electricity from 54 commercial reactors. Tokyo plans to ramp up significantly its use of nuclear power to about 41 percent by 2017 and 50 percent by 2050. But this risks becoming too reliant on this source for electricity generation. In an earthquake-prone region, one massive quake can knock out numerous reactors for many months, resulting in significant economic harm and adverse effects on people’s livelihoods. In the article, I argue for effective policies to stimulate greater growth in renewable sources such as solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, wind, and geothermal, which are all abundant in Japan.

 

The implications for other countries in earthquake risky regions are clear. In particular, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam that have expressed renewed interest in acquiring their first nuclear power plants need to weigh this investment versus investment in renewable energies. I am not arguing that nuclear power should not be used. But it must meet rigorous standards of safety: both in human operations and ability to withstand natural disasters. Japan could serve as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region and for other regions that are earthquake prone such as California by shifting its electricity generation more rapidly toward renewable energies.

 

Also on March 11, Marco Werman of PRI’s The World interviewed me about nuclear power, accidents, and renewable energy policy in Japan. Listen to the five-minute interview.

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5 Responses to “A Nuclear Safety Wake Up Call for Japan and the World”

  1. Matt J. March 14, 2011 at 9:09 PM #

    This post is not very informative. It reads like an advertisement for the Foreign Policy article.

    Worse yet, events have already made both this post and the FP article out of date. There has been a second explosion, and Japan has finally called for international help. So now things are under much better control — and likely to stay that way.

    As for safety, they seem o have really made only one fundamentatl mistake: all their other difficulties proceed from that.

    That one mistake was: they seem to have forgotten that especially in that part of the world, earthquakes tend to be accompanied by tsunamis: they put their backup diesel generators in a location vulnerable to tsunamis.

    If they had not made that one mistake, none of this would have happened, the reactors would be operable now. But as it is, they will probably never be able to use these reactors again, since using sea water as coolant renders the piping no longer reliable (sea water is corrosive, though the damage is unlikely to compromise anything when used for just a few days) for long term use.

  2. Graham Paul Knopp, Ph.D. March 15, 2011 at 9:00 AM #

    We now know we have a known release of an apparently significant, but unknown amount, of radiogenic materials to the atmosphere. We know that there is international monitoring of the situation. But who will tell us what is going on and what the risks may be with any degree of accuracy? We need to see the data.

  3. William Higinbotham March 18, 2011 at 3:23 PM #

    There is a US Patent called Method of Containing Radioactive Contamination – # 7309807 B2 – Dec. 18, 2007. I just heard there is news of the possibility to a last ditch need to encase the plant as Russia did. Would it be advisable to ask that they need to add nutron absorbing material such as the patent or as Russia put on their plant? As a normal citizen with limited knowledge, I went to the library and read The truth about Chernobyl / Grigori Mevedev. This book opened my eyes and gave me allot of respect for the operators, scientists and managers in Japan. But it also shedded light on the culture/political issues that has presented itself during these events. All the experts are down playing the release of radiological material stating that it will stay within the local area. I do not hear of the two largest issues with these is lung inhalation and digestive. The need to recommend that all the citizens within the areas just outside of the restricted zones should be required to wear face masks. They should keep the old ones in plastic zip lock bags that will then be picked up priodically by enviromental personnel for analysis. I may be asking too much.
    Praying and Heartfelt
    William B. Higinbotham, Bellport, NY

  4. TZK March 29, 2011 at 5:59 PM #

    Mat J. I would need to know how the generators failed before reaching any conclusion. Remember, the plant and associated infrastructure was not designed to withstand a 9 magnitude earthquake and the fact most of it did is perhaps a credit to the Japanese. I still do not understand why they did not have gravity fed cooling system for emergencies and why they did not cool the reactors from sea using ship based hoses.

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