David Sweet

The so-called nuclear renaissance seemed to be in full swing, with a number of new proposals for nuclear plants on the drawing board around the world. However, all of this changed on 11 March with the earthquake that shook Japan and the nuclear industry.

One of the over-arching principles of WADE in its support for decentralized energy has been to remain agnostic with respect to individual energy technologies. In fact, WADE supports a host of traditional fossil-fuelled technologies, as well as renewable technologies, that can all be used to supply clean and efficient local power options. Some have even proposed advancement of new technologies that would make possible small scale nuclear power plants that could be used on a decentralized basis (the nuclear submarine fleet travelling the globe can also be thought of as decentralized nuclear power). However, in the wake of the tragic events in Japan and the ongoing disaster at Fukushima it is time to seriously question the nuclear option when so many other alternatives exist.

While no energy option is without risk, the catastrophic nature of the risks to life, as well as to land, sea and air, when a nuclear disaster strikes, is unparalleled. The threat level at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was recently raised to 7, the highest possible and the same level as that of Chernobyl in 1986, given the amount of radiation that was released from the plant. The head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a call for evacuation within a 50-mile radius of Fukushima. If a similar evacuation was required at a plant in New York it would trigger the mass evacuation of over 20 million people in the New York City area.

While there is no doubt that many nuclear plants will continue to run safely for many years into the future, there are plants such as the 31-year-old Metsamor plant in Armenia, built in an earthquake zone using an old style Soviet era design without a primary containment structure, that has been called one of the most dangerous plants in the world and still operates even though neighbouring countries have tried to have it closed. The real question is whether new nuclear power plants should be considered as an option going forward. While they can be designed to minimize risk, the greater risk is when situations occur that are outside the design criteria. For example, Fukushima had a sea wall designed to withstand a wave of 5.7 metres, even though larger waves had hit Japan before. When the 9.0 earthquake produced the 14 metre wave, the low-lying back-up power systems were of no avail.

But, even assuming that new plants will be properly designed, operated and maintained, nuclear is by no means low cost power when you consider the astronomic capital costs for construction as well as decommissioning, not to mention the waste disposal issues that are yet to be resolved even after decades of attempts to address the political and technical problems. For example, nuclear waste in the US is stored at 121 sites around the country, even though billions of dollars have been spent on the Yucca Mountain storage facility, which has never become operational.

Even though China and a number of other countries are re-evaluating plans for nuclear facilities after the events in Japan, the nuclear renaissance may have stalled. But is by no means over. New nuclear projects can require capital investments of more than $10 billion, which means that there is a lot of money available for advocacy and lobbying to push projects forward. The decentralized energy option must now, more than ever, be given full consideration as a safe alternative to the construction of even more nuclear power plants.

David Sweet Executive Director,
WADE
dsweet@localpower.org

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