Tsach Gilboa looks at nuclear power plants in light of tsunami’s and earthquakes, and wonders if we are setting ourselves up for future catastrophes.
Heart wrenching are the words that embedded themselves in my in my mind and my heart when thinking about the earthquake and following tsunami in Japan in March of this year, 2013. Watching the footage over a period of days was like watching a disaster movie, not quite real but devastating just the same. Then reality sunk in and the resulting unavoidable emotional pain. Living in Southern California, where a major earthquake is simply a matter of when and not if, one wonders about the awesome power of Mother Nature and our arrogance, as humans, thinking we can even attempt to control it and not suffer the consequences of not respecting it.
Obviously we cannot control earthquakes and, in certain locals, the following tsunamis. The best we can hope for is early detection, warning and appropriate urban planning and construction regulation to minimize damage and human casualties when these disasters strike. It was heartening to see the benefits of Japan’s advance architecture and construction technology and regulations when many buildings survived the earthquake. And then, the sea took over with a vengeance and washed whole cities away leaving complete destruction and devastation in its wake. With tens of thousands dead and missing and a whole coastline of a previously rich in life, productivity and activity gone, it is hard to find any silver lining.
And then human arrogance and stupidity came into full view. The earthquake and the following tsunami damaged the Fukushima Nuclear Plant and its 4 reactors with several explosions releasing large amounts of radiation into the air and loss of power to cool the cores of the reactors in order to prevent a meltdown. In desperation, the government of Japan evacuated 750 of the plants 800 workers and pumped in seawater with firefighting equipment in an attempt to cool the cores and prevent a disastrous meltdown.
Even more troubling than this nuclear disaster and its possible catastrophic consequences for Japan and others, is the fact that apparently it follows decades of falsified safety reports, fatal accidents and underestimated earthquake risks in Japan’s atomic power industry. Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismology professor at Kobe University, said Japan’s history of nuclear accidents stems from overconfidence in plant engineering. In 2006, he resigned from a government panel on reactor safety, saying the process was rigged and “unscientific.”
But, Japan’s record with its 54 operating nuclear reactors is not the worst. The International Atomic Energy Agency that rates nuclear accidents on a scale of one zero to seven, rated Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union at seven, the most dangerous, with Fukushima currently at five with the same rating of five given to the 1979 partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island USA.
What seems abundantly clear here is that we have not learned anything from History. Nuclear Power, putting aside that there is no long term safe solution for the waste, seems like a clean solution. However, it is overwhelmed with risks that cannot be solved like earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, power outages, human error, and the list goes on and on. In the US we have 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states, operated by 30 different power companies. In my back yard in California there are two reactors, one in Diablo Canyon near San Luis Abispo and one at San Onofre, about midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Both of these reactors were built on the Coast near powerful fault lines.
Why these building sites were chosen and who authorized them is information I do not possess, but arrogance and stupidity must have played a big part in that unfortunate and unwise decision. A major earthquake is in our future and a tsunami is a strong possibility, and yet we are not protected. Both reactors are near large population centers and are at greater risk of onshore faults than offshore ones.
This is but one example of two plants in California. In addition to the US and Japan there are about 70 countries with nuclear plants and disaster possibilities. What is then the solution? Safety and forward thinking is a must. Plants have to all be inspected and evaluated. The surrounding regions and geology must be taken into account. Best and brightest minds have to be engaged to formulate retrofits to make the existing plants as safe as possible. Realistic evacuation and emergency plans have to be put in place in case of a disaster. R&D money must be allocated to improve the technology and make it safer. New technology must be explored and developed to deal with the waste. And most importantly, alternatives must be explored and developed to wean us not only of fossil fuels but also of nuclear energy, since it is a demon we have yet control–and possibly never will– and if we don’t find a safe way to deal with it and replace it, sooner or later, it will be the source of our destruction.
And back to Japan, we must do all we can to help. We must not forget that Japan is the only nation whose civilian population was attacked by nuclear weapons, by us, not that long ago. We must also learn and implement the changes from that lesson in the US, to avoid a similar tragedy. We all share this small and fragile planet. Lets see if we can keep from destroying it, or at least delay that destruction until we find a replacement. NASA has plans to make Mars habitable for humans. Maybe we’ll be lucky and be able to move there before its too late here. Or maybe, just maybe, we can grow up and become good earth citizens and make sure our planet is safe for us for as long as our sun is there to warm and energize us.