Since the 11 March Fukushima nuclear disaster, the global nuclear industry has been mounting an aggressive PR campaign to convince an increasingly skeptical public that not only is nuclear energy safe, it has a number of benefits, such as zero carbon dioxide emissions.
The center of the global nuclear industry is the United States, where the first civilian nuclear power plants for generating electricity were built and which now operates 104 commercial reactors, producing roughly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Until Fukushima, nuclear power advocates saw a potential renaissance of the industry – besides arguing the global warming benefits, Three Mile Island was in 1979 and Chernobyl twenty-five years ago.
Well, Mother Nature this year seems to have entered the debate.
The 11 March 9.0 Richter scale earthquake that rattled Japan saw its shoreline structures survive, but the 50-foot waves generated by tsunami that followed less than an hour later knocked out power to Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) six nuclear reactor complex at Fukushima, and the facility has yet to be contained.
Closer to home for Americans, the 23 August 5.8-magnitude earthquake centered in Sterling, Virginia, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was felt at 13 locations with nuclear power plants, from North Carolina to Michigan, but the NRC happily reported that the vibrations shut down a single reactor, North Anna in Virginia, 10 miles from the epicenter, adding that there was no damage to nuclear systems at any of the sites.
On 29 August however, as the United States Eastern seaboard was recovering from Hurricane Irene, the North Anna nuclear power plant’s owners, Dominion Resources Inc., notified the NRC that the facility may have experienced shaking during the earthquake that may have exceeded levels for which it was designed, causing the NRC to dispatch inspectors, stating that data was still being "collected and analyzed to determine the precise level of shaking that was experienced at key locations."
And speaking of hurricanes, Irene knocked out one east coast NPP, while officials shut down another.
On 27 August one of two reactors at Constellation Energy’s Calvert Cliffs plant in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay automatically went offline after a wind gust propelled a piece of aluminum siding from a building into the facility’s main transformer. Constellation Energy promptly declared the incident an “unusual event,” which is the lowest of the four NRC emergency classifications. Further north in New Jersey, the same day saw Exelon Corp. prudently take the one-reactor Oyster Creek Generating Station offline as a precaution ahead of expected high winds from the storm. In anticipation of Irene’s potential impact, The NRC, in anticipation of the storm, dispatched extra inspectors to nine plants in North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York.
A survey conducted in April 2011, the month after Fukushima, found that 64 percent of Americans opposed the construction of new nuclear reactors. Recent events will undoubtedly increase those numbers.
It can be argued that the U.S. was lucky in dodging the twin bullets of the Sterling earthquake and Hurricane Irene. But the question must be asked – what if the Sterling earthquake was not 5.8 on the Richter scale, but 9.0, like Fukushima? Sterling is 85 miles south of Washington D.C.
Japan now estimates that the radiation spewed from the crippled Fukushima reactor complex affected anywhere from 386 to more than 1,500 square miles. Does the U.S. government really want to put Washington in such arm’s way?
And oh, by the way, the cleanup costs for Fukushima are now estimated at up to $130 billion.
What if Hurricane Irene, a Category 3 storm the Saffir-Simpson scale, had been instead a Category 5, with winds in excess of 120 mph and, instead of glancing off the Eastern seaboard, gone inland up the Chesapeake Bay?
Do our politicians really want to roll these dice?
Oh, and Mother Nature is not the only threat to the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant – three miles away, the Cove Point liquefied natural gas LNG Terminal is located near Lusby, Maryland. Thinks terrorists might regard the proximity of the two sites as interesting? While no one has yet blown up an LNG tanker, the kinetic energy contained in its cargo is equivalent to a small nuclear weapon. Great piece of infrastructure planning there.
Revised estimates of the direct damage caused by Hurricane Irene are in the range of $20 billion. Add to those the loss of about two days economic activity, spread over a week, across 25 percent of the economy, and an estimated of the losses imposed by Irene is about $40 to 45 billion.
How much to clean up after a breached reactor following a Category 5 hurricane?
What the violent weather events of 2011 have proved is that the best engineering minds in the world can not reduce nature’s risk factors to zero. It is time for Washington to stop dismissing nuclear power critics as granola-crunching tree-huggers and have a serious debate about the risks involved with nuclear energy.
Before the next earthquake and hurricane rattle the United States’ eastern seaboard.
By. John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com