As workers struggle to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan after it was damaged by an earthquake, the world watches, trying to understand the risks. Experts say the plant’s problems fall somewhere between the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the devastating explosion at the plant in Chernobyl in the Ukrainian region of the then-Soviet Union in 1986.
As the situation worsens at the northern Japanese plant, fears are rightly heightened. On Wednesday, a skeleton crew working at the plant was removed as radiation levels rose. The workers are still trying to cool fuel rods.
But the final story has yet to be written and may not be written for many years when cancer rates in the area are evaluated.
Those who believe nuclear power has a future in the U.S. as an alternative to fossil fuel are downplaying the implications of Fukushima. Nuclear critics are pointing to Fukushima as evidence of the technology’s inherent problems and risks, risks so great that they should disqualify it from playing a part in this nation’s energy portfolio. A better way lies somewhere between these two extremes.
With the available information, the problems with Fukushima come because it was built on a fault line. In the U.S., before a nuclear power plant is built, an in-depth seismic analysis is conducted. That analysis translates into standards that require plants to be built to be able to withstand the biggest earthquake possible in the area.
Since 1987, nuclear power plants in the U.S. are required to be prepared for a “station black out,” when — as in the case of Fukushima — plants lose their off-site electricity. That electricity powers pumps which keep water moving around the core, which in turn prevents over-heating. Diesel-powered pumps are on-site at U.S. plants, as are batteries. In Japan, fire-fighting vehicles have been moved onto the plant site to pump water after the plant’s diesel pumps were damaged by the tsunami and battery back-up failed.
Nuclear power is risky, its spent fuel poses serious storage and disposal problems and the plants themselves are very costly to build and operate. But the worst-case scenario of an earthquake of historically large proportion should not be enough to end efforts to reconsider nuclear power to solve the nation’s energy challenges. Nuclear power has minimal carbon emissions and could help ease America’s dependence on oil, which is imported from many currently unstable countries and subject to wild price swings.
Once it is over, the Fukushima disaster should be studied — as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were — to learn how the technology can be safer because it will continue to be part of the global energy mix.