Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Nuclear Power after Fukushima

Posted by butalidnl on 22 March 2011

The present problems with the nuclear reactors at Fukushima are sure to affect how countries look at nuclear energy. And the overall net effect is that lesser nuclear plants will be built, and those that will be built will be made to higher safety specifications.

In the Philippines, the proposal to build nuclear power plants and/or activate the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant seems to have died with Fukushima. These proposals were based on the apparent safety of Japanese nuclear plants. In Germany, the plan to extend the life of a number of nuclear plants seems also to have died. Venezuela also announced that they are freezing their plans to build a nuclear plant, in the light of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

In the US and France, authorities insist that nuclear power plants are safe; and that they plan to continue building them – to new, stricter specifications.

Traditional ideas about protecting nuclear plants have concentrated on protecting the reactor core. Fukushima shows that vulnerabilities outside this core could result in nuclear accidents.

Nuclear advocates say that a 9.0 magnitude quake together with a 10 meter high tsunami is a very unique event, and we shouldn’t worry too much about this happening elsewhere. True, but other kinds of “unique” events could still happen elsewhere. Humans can also produce catastrophes in the form of a terrorist attack. After Fukushima, terrorists all over the world now know that nuclear reactors are more vulnerable than they previously thought.  It is no longer a matter of disrupting the reactor core (which IS hardened), but a well-planned attack could knock out the pumping system and cause a disaster anyway. Thus, what authorities say about a reactor being able to withstand even a nuclear attack is no longer valid; a much smaller explosion would now do. We could imagine things like a 747 plane crash or a truck bomb would suffice to cause a meltdown. Or, a hacker could simply turn off the pumping systems from a distance.

Cooling Pumps. The constant supply of water needed for cooling makes it vulnerable to all kinds of disruption. In Fukushima, this was due to the tsunami that hit it. The tsunami knocked out the triple-redundant pumping systems. These pumping systems are not as hardened as the reactor core, and thus quite vulnerable.

Spent Fuel Rods. The storage area for spent fuel rods is another vulnerable point. There are not as hardened as the reactor core. Since the rods retain more than 90% of the original uranium, they could heat up if the water is taken away.

Software. The controls of nuclear plants are run by computer programs. Bugs in these programs, or more probably, their inability to cope with unusual events, may cause problems. Also, if the controlling software is connected to the outside – this would be an added vulnerability. Hackers could then disrupt the software itself, even causing a meltdown.

Safety Requirements
“Hardening”. The pump system and spent fuel rods should be protected by more layers of cement and/or steel. They should be made strong enough to withstand a major tsunami, a plane crash (ala WTC) or a truck bomb.

Isolated Back-ups. Back-up pumps should be stored at relatively distant locations (perhaps 2 km away) so that they will survive any “direct hits” on the plant itself (this is what is done for data backups).  It should also be possible to install the pumps manually, or robot systems should be available to install them.

Software for the plant should be physically separated from the outside. No part of the system should be accessible from outside sites. This way, no hackers could disrupt the plant from outside.

Protection from Outside Takeover. When controls are isolated, the only way to induce a meltdown will be for a suicide team to take over the plant to cause a meltdown. Measures should be taken to protect nuclear plants from such a takeover. The computers on site should also have programming that will disregard commands that would cause a meltdown.

Governments should require that insurance should be taken out for possible nuclear accidents. This should cover costs for lives lost and property damage, as well as for relocating affected people and businesses from a given distance around the plant (e.g. a 20 km radius). At present, this “insurance” is covered by the national government, in the sense that if an accident occurs, the national government will shoulder all damages. This is a hidden subsidy to the nuclear industry.

This insurance should be available from private sources, and the company operating the plant should shoulder this expense. And the insurance should be regularly updated to make sure it corresponds to changes in population and economic activity in the area.

If private insurance companies charge “too high” a premium for this insurance, then it is obvious – the planned plant is unsafe.

Insurance coverage will also force companies to implement safety measures. Insurance companies would charge more if the plant lacks certain safety features. There is no such thing as “uninsurable”; it all boils down to a question of price.

The Obama administrations’ plan to “review” all US nuclear plants is, by itself, toothless. Is the government willing to subject all plants to the insurance requirement? Are plant operators willing to make the needed changes to harden plants? or is the government going to shoulder this? And what will they do if the government is not willing to shoulder the expense for extra safety?

I believe that the new requirements needed for nuclear plants will mean the early retirement of a lot of plants. This is important, because it is when we fully “internalize” the externalities of nuclear plants (including disposal of nuclear wastes) that can we see if they are indeed economically feasible.

At the same, other kinds of power plants – from LNG to coal – should also be required to take insurance against possible accidents, as this will really level the playing field when it comes to energy sources.

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