"For 50 years, nuclear power stations have produced three products which only a lunatic could want: bomb-explosive plutonium, lethal radioactive waste and electricity so dear it has to be heavily subsidized. They leave to future generations the task, and most of the cost, of making safe sites that have been polluted half-way to eternity."
I suspect I might take some flak for this one but I support the above quote. Now don't get me wrong. I like electricity. I like that this computer I'm typing on is not simply an inert piece of plastic and metals and whatever else makes up a computer. I like that my lights work and that my stove turns on and my fridge keeps the food from spoiling. I realize that there will necessarily be consequences and side-effects and pollution created in the pursuit of these conveniences. We gotta make power somehow and most people will agree with that sentiment.
But I'm still gonna say that we need to shut down these nuclear plants. And it's not because of the radioactive waste they produce as part of normal operations. It's not because their fuel can be made into bombs by crazy people. And it's not even because they are pretty inefficient and generally require government-provided subsidies and insurance. It's for another reason. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll mention that I'm from Manitoba, Canada, and we have hydroelectric dams producing more nature-friendly (relative term) power than we know what to do with. This puts me in an armchair-warrior position since closing the nuclear plants isn't going to cost me a thing.
But I'm afraid I must insist they be phased out as rapidly as possible for the simple reason that they can go haywire and cause an unstoppable chain-reaction that could potentially make our planet uninhabitable in a way no other type of power plant can. Since the Japanese Fukushima explosion of 2011, some major countries seem to agree. Germany is determined to decommission all of their plants, France has begun attempting to reduce dependence on them, and Switzerland has cancelled plans for new ones and will not replace old ones once their lifespan is up. Despite Japan having few other options for power besides expensive, imported fossil fuel, their country's tectonic troubles and their personal relation to the Fukushima disaster have them planning to phase out all nuclear plants in 30 years at most.
But Adam, you may say, Japan is a unique case and those other countries are just Luddite worry-warts who have other options for power that a lot of countries don't. And in any case, Chernobyl happened and we still seem to be doing okay. Which is true. It did happen. A lot of Soviets sacrificed themselves entombing the sucker and life continued, much the same as before. It was supposed to be a one-time lesson that would result in much stricter and safer practices with fail-safes so it could not happen again. Which, so far, is true. No nuclear plants have exploded due to human error.
But as Fukushima has proven, sometimes things can go wrong even without humans being responsible. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami smashed the Fukushima Daiichi power plant resulting in the second ever event to deserve a 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Although news coverage was intense at first, it waned pretty quickly as no huge die-off occurred due to the released radiation. It seemed that by deliberately disobeying orders from corporate headquarters to stop pumping seawater into the damaged reactor, the plant's supervisor Masao Yoshido allowed humanity to avoid another Chernobyl. Yoshido died of cancer this July and it's safe to say we all owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Even ignoring studies showing increased radiation-linked cancer rates in Japan as well as in the US, I think it is safe to say we have been led to believe we had dodged this particular bullet.
Unfortunately the reality has been that the media have simply not been doing their job. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has been allowed to dictate the narrative of what is occurring with basically no oversight. It turns out that the site was never actually contained and radioactive water has been leaking with "no accurate figures for radiation levels." You may say that since this issue is being reported by all major news organizations now, the media is doing their job albeit in a very tardy fashion.
However, that would be missing the reality that this leaking radiation water is the least of our worries vis-a-vis the plant. Much less reported by the media is what will be required by the clean-up crew to end this whole saga. Reliable old Reuters often provides the on-the-ground breaking scoops that our local media then report to us. Despite their well-deserved reputation, it seems that most media organizations have chosen to ignore their recent scoop about the dangers involved in the clean-up process.
Essentially, Tepco needs to remove 1300 spent fuel rods, containing 14,000 times the amount of radiation dropped onto Japan in WWII, from a dilapidated, flooding, and collapsing power plant that still sits in an earthquake-prone location. The whole process will take about 40 years and cost about eleven billion dollars. Each rod weighs 660 pounds, is 15 feet long, and cannot get too close to each other or will trigger a chain-reaction. If exposed to air, they may also trigger a chain-reaction. Usually, when these rods are moved as part of normal operations, a sophisticated robot is used to guide the work and ensure accuracy down to millimeters. Due to the damage caused by the earthquake/tsunami, this is not possible and the cranes will be operated in a poisonously radioactive area by scared human hands with all of their limitations. These rods will be removed individually, one at a time, and a mistake on any of them could trigger an unstoppable chain-reaction.
As a religious and apparently gloomy guy, Ronald Reagan said during his presidency that "We may be the generation that sees Armageddon." One media source that ran with the Reuters story, Russia Today, has decided he was just a bit premature and actually prefer the term 'Apocalypse.' Although there are some questions regarding their credibility on certain issues, Russia Today is the second-most watched foreign-media organization in the US after the BBC and the Russians have more expertise on nuclear calamities than anybody else. I won't try and steal their thunder since they do an admirable job painting the likely impossibility of this undertaking. Let's just say that when scientists start using terms like "open-air super reactor spectacular," it's probably time to take notice.
I think most of us respect the efficiency and capabilities of the Japanese people. Coming out of WWII, they became a major power again very rapidly. And simply put, they cannot handle nuclear power. This calls into question whether anyone else can either. The Japanese may be more prone to troubles due to their country's tendency to quake but nuclear plants anywhere can be damaged by other means such as floods, solar flairs, and terrorist attacks. Heck, even a rogue meteor could happen. And unlike other power plants, if things go really bad, people all over the world will pay the price for as long as radioactive elements take to break down. Uranium-235 has a half-life of 700 million years.
I don't think that's a price we should be considering paying.