What the Scientists Know

The nuclear energy’s safety culture should be embraced in all dangerous industries

Opinion | Daniel Gloeckler | May 2011

"Nuclear power? No thanks!" has been the slogan for German anti-nuclear movement since the ‘70s. With the recent tsunami, earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan, anti-nuclear protestors, picket signs and loudspeakers in hand – prepare for battle. Tightly gripping the misunderstood giant’s neck, anti-nuclear protesters aren’t planning to let go easily.

As difficult as it might be for protestors to swallow, nuclear power remains the safest energy industry. The dominant counter-argument that something horrible might happen is certainly true. However such an excuse-like argument seems naïvely polemic, because despite the horrors of a nuclear past, the nuclear power industry has had a relatively clean track record – Chernobyl in 1986 being the last most dreadful crisis.

To be more precise, accidents like the partial meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi were only triggered by extreme natural events, which in turn expose human negligence: an unquestioning attitude or lack of critical thinking. Although such catastrophes could deter anyone from nuclear energy, it must be understood that the safety process at Fukushima only became vulnerable due to a lack of preparedness. No one could have expected a tsunami to hit just an hour after the initial earthquake. Nonetheless, it should have been apparent that an underground safety net so close to shore was a sign of poor judgment.

What exactly happened

For a power plant to "turn off," the core needs to decay into stable elements. These cause less and less harm to their container as they are cooled with circulating water from pumps within the plant, which regulate the core temperature to eventually safe levels. This process can take weeks.

In Japan’s case, the earthquake caused seismic damage to the plant and knocked out the electric grids that would have assured the eventual "turn off" of the core. As this is expected in an earthquake scenario, the plant is designed to switch to a backup diesel generator to proceed unimpeded with the rather slow, yet safe process of cooling the core.

The tsunami that followed proved Fukushima’s lack of foresight, and has led to our current nuclear nightmare. The plant’s offsite diesel safety generators were underground, located closer to shore than the plant, with a ventilation system that proved irresponsibly vulnerable to a powerful flow of water. Expectedly, the tsunami rendered the diesel generators useless, blacking out the entire plant.

With only an hour-long onsite battery to rely on, the uranium within the reactor overheated, melted its way through zirconium metal tubes and allowed the core to burn through the reactor vessel, subsequently the containment vessel, and beyond that the massively thick concrete containment building.

Nuclear energy the safest

With overshadowing attention on Japan and Libya, very few noticed the recent coalmine collapse in the Sorange region of Pakistan, which caused the death of forty-five staff members. Poor ventilation allowed "poisonous gases to accumulate and trigger blasts which led to the collapse," officials said. Ironically, the mining industry’s safety culture is almost non-existent compared to that of the nuclear power industry.

The same goes for oil industry. During the three-month BP oil spill, William Reilly, co-chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, admitted that the oil industry is in dire need of an "entity, much like exists in the nuclear industry, to raise the bar for safety everywhere."

If governments were to implement safety programs for other industries like that which exists for the nuclear, events such as the Kolontár red sludge in Hungary or the BP oil spill would have led to significantly less damage, if not avoided altogether. The nuclear energy’s safety culture should be embraced in all dangerous industries – not necessarily duplicated, but similarly strictly regulated. Let’s just hope we all go "nuclear."

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    the vienna review May 2011