Three alumni experts offer their perspectives on nuclear power in the wake of the disaster in Japan.
Interviews by Jennifer Weeks ’83
Sarah Nichols ’03 earned a doctorate in physics at Stony Brook University in New York and did postdoctoral research at University of Michigan. As a visiting assistant professor of physics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., she teaches courses on mechanics, electricity and magnetism as well as introductory classes for non-science majors.
Some Americans wonder why Japan invested so heavily in nuclear power. What are its technical pluses?
Most of the developed world gets electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear power, plus smaller amounts from hydropower, biomass and wind. Japan has a relatively small landmass, a high population and a technologically advanced society that needs a lot of electricity to provide services its citizens want. Its islands are volcanic, so they don’t have a lot of indigenous fossil fuels. Importing oil and gas subjects them to world prices. Nuclear reactors are expensive to build, but operation is reasonably cheap, so nuclear power is an attractive long-term source. Renewables are still relatively expensive, and we haven’t figured out yet how to scale them up to supply large-scale, uninterrupted power.
What aspects of this disaster may be relevant to nuclear plants in the U.S.?
Radiation scares people, but far more Americans have died in coal mines or from coal plant emissions than have been killed or even made sick by nuclear power. Having said that, nuclear utilities here should all have multiple power supplies, lots of sensors in locations that can provide information about different parts of the plants and redundant cooling systems. Much of that is in place, but promoting safety is an ongoing process.
Physicists and engineers can tell you how much force a material will stand up to and what stresses it can tolerate. But they can’t tell you when disasters will happen or how they will play out. We have to make judgment calls about where to build infrastructure and what scale of disasters to plan for. Those decisions can’t be made by scientists.
The U.S. government assured residents in the Pacific Northwest that they were safe from radiation. Yet several West Coast drug stores sold out their supplies of potassium iodide, a supplement that can protect the thyroid gland from radiation. What was the real risk of exposure?
Radiation on our side of the Pacific wasn’t near damaging levels. Any suggestion that we should take iodine pills was fear mongering. We need those in case we ever have a serious problem here. [Ed. note: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommends that states consider making potassium iodide available to residents within 10 miles of commercial nuclear plants as part of their emergency planning.]
You teach a course called “Physics for Future Presidents.” What insights would it give into a disaster like Fukushima?
It’s designed to develop well-informed citizens. We make decisions about scientific issues every associated press Japanese engineers are still measuring damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, which was devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami in March. The disaster left the plant without backup power to keep nuclear fuel rods cool, causing partial meltdowns in three reactors. Used fuel rods stored at another unit overheated, releasing more radiation. In early May Japan announced it would abandon its plan to build 14 nuclear reactors by 2030, raising even more questions about the future of nuclear power worldwide. The Review asked three Williams alumni—two who study nuclear power from a scientific or political perspective and a third who is an influential member of the power industry—to share their early reactions and perspectives. September 2009 | Williams Alumni Review | 11 day. Should we get electricity from renewable sources, nuclear power or fossil fuels? Will your cell phone give you cancer? If you know a little science, you can assess whether an argument is credible. Students learn what radiation is and how nuclear reactors work—for example, that we design reactors so they won’t blow up like nuclear bombs.
Has Constellation taken any actions at its own nuclear plants in response to the disaster at Fukushima?
Within days of the events at Fukushima, each of our nuclear plants—along with the rest of the nuclear industry—began a process to confirm that the procedures and equipment previously designed to address this type of “beyond the imagination” event were in place and ready to perform in the unlikely event it should become necessary. As was true following the accident at Three Mile Island and in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the nuclear industry will learn from these events and use the knowledge gained to enhance our safety and security processes and procedures.
What kind of response do you expect from the American public over the next year or two?
With growing concern about climate change and the environment, I am confident the American public will continue to support nuclear energy as a safe, cost-effective and efficient means of producing emissions-free energy. The nuclear industry produces about 20 percent of our nation’s electricity. It is by far our largest source that does not create air pollution or carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. We must accelerate our transition to a clean-energy economy, both for the benefit of our environment and our future competitiveness as a nation.
You’re chairman of the board at the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), a nonprofit organization that utilities set up after Three Mile Island to make U.S. nuclear plants safer and more reliable. How is INPO reacting to Fukushima?
INPO has been watching these events very closely and has issued “event reports,” which include recommendations for actions that members should take at their U.S. nuclear sites. As a member of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), INPO is in regular contact with nuclear operators around the globe.
Every major energy source has its own risks. Last year, for example, an explosion killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, just two weeks before the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. How do energy companies weigh these issues when they decide where to invest?
Carefully assessing and managing risk of all kinds is one of the most important and challenging functions in our business. The power industry is preparing to invest more than a trillion dollars over the next 20 years in new generation, smart grid technology and other infrastructure to meet future energy needs.
In many instances, the choice is clear. For example, our decision to invest approximately $1 billion on air emissions scrubbers at our Brandon Shores power plant [ed. note: located 10 miles southeast of Baltimore] makes that facility one of the cleanest coal-burning power plants of its kind in the nation and brings it into compliance with one of the toughest clean air standards on the Eastern Seaboard. Similarly, Baltimore Gas & Electric, our regulated distribution utility, is moving ahead with one of the most comprehensive smart grid programs in the nation. When completed, we estimate this initiative will reduce the need to build new power plants and save our customers $2.5 billion over the life of the program.
Meeting our nation’s long-term clean energy objectives will almost certainly require new investment in nuclear energy. While the business case for new nuclear plants can’t be made in today’s economy, over time—and it may be a decade or more—the economics are likely to change. Keeping the ones we’ve got and building a new generation of advanced nuclear plants will remain critically important to America’s energy future.
The shorthand assessment of damage at Fukushima seems to be: “Worse than Three Mile Island, not as bad as Chernobyl.” Do you agree?
Fukushima hasn’t released as much total radiation as Chernobyl so far, but in other respects this accident is worse.
What are your biggest concerns?
First, nuclear plants with the same design as the Fukushima reactors are operating in the After the Meltdowns Above left: A memorial to the coal miners who died in the April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W. Va. Above right: A total of 4.9 million barrels of crude oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of three months after the April 2010 explosion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given some of the U.S. plants 20-year license extensions on their original 40-year operating lives. One of those decisions came right after Fukushima. That’s worrisome. Second, the accident in Japan shows that on-site storage of spent nuclear fuel is dangerous. Every U.S. nuclear reactor has large quantities of spent fuel stored on site because we don’t have a longterm plan for managing nuclear waste. When things go badly, spent fuel storage pools are vulnerable. Some commentators say the U.S. doesn’t have to worry about an accident like Fukushima because we don’t build reactors in earthquake zones. That misses the point. Current nuclear plants are technologically complex systems that are very unforgiving. They work really well within a very narrow range of conditions. When those conditions are breached by an earthquake, a tsunami, a hurricane or some other disaster, things can get out of control fast.
Japan announced in May that it’s scrapping plans to build 14 new nuclear reactors by 2030. Yet President Obama still supports nuclear power as part of the U.S.’s clean energy portfolio, and developing countries like China and India don’t appear to be backing away from nuclear energy. Does that surprise you?
I recently heard someone from the U.S. nuclear industry say that we clearly weren’t going to build any new reactors soon after Fukushima, so now his job was to get existing reactors’ lives extended out to 80 years. The problem is that at some point machines wear out. We have a dilemma: Do we extend the lifetime of aging plants, or do we shut them down and build next-generation models in their places?
There have been half a dozen meltdowns in the world since the nuclear era began. [Ed. note: In addition to three units at Fukushima and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, partial meltdowns occurred at an experimental reactor in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 1955; the Fermi I breeder reactor outside Detroit in 1966; and Three Mile Island Unit 2 in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979.] We’ve had some close calls, and we need to decide whether we’re willing to tolerate this kind of infrequent but catastrophic problem. It’s worrisome that the U.S. is trying to sell nuclear power plants to countries that are much less technologically advanced than Japan, like China. Japan is a very technically sophisticated country and is having a lot of trouble managing the Fukushima accident.
Nuclear power supplies about 20 percent of U.S. electricity and 14 percent of electricity worldwide. How difficult would it be to find another source for that share of electricity generation?
We’re not going to build a lot of new nuclear power, and I think the replacement will be some combination of natural gas and renewables. Renewable energy has been doubling its worldwide electricity contributions about every three years, and wind power may overtake nuclear energy as a global electricity source within 10 years or less. These technologies are easy to scale up.
Industry advocates say that nuclear power is an important part of the answer to climate change. Does that argument resonate with scientists and leaders in other countries?
Many countries are thinking about where nuclear power fits. I think it has to play a part, although it may be a niche role. In IPCC reports we describe nuclear power as a carbonreducing technology option. Many people would like to see nuclear power work to address climate change, but Fukushima has put a real damper on that movement. It may be a decade before we have a clear sense of where we’re going with nuclear power. It’s possible to envision a path that works for nuclear power. There are all kinds of promises for the next generation of advanced reactors, and some of them sound pretty good. I’d rather build some and find out whether they’ll work than extend the lives of creaky old reactors.