After Japan. Where does the world go after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident?

This week marks six months since a 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami sparked the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident, a massive incident involving equipment failures, meltdowns triggered by fuel pools and radiation release. The multiple-reactor accident is the largest accident since the Chernobyl in 1986.

In order to discuss where the world goes AFTER JAPAN, Western News editor Jason Winders sat down with three University of Western Ontario nuclear experts: Jin Jiang, University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering Chair in Control/Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Senior Industrial Research Chair in Nuclear Control and Instrumentation; David Shoesmith, NSERC Chair in Nuclear Waste Management; and J. Clara Wren, NSERC/Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Industrial Research Chair in Radiation Induced Processes.

WN: Looking back, what did Japan do right, what did they do wrong and what needs to be focused on going forward?

SHOESMITH

SHOESMITH

Shoesmith: They didn’t manage it politically very well. I am not sure what technical response you could have to something of this magnitude in the beginning because nobody could really know what it was like. Nobody could really tell anybody outside of Japan, or who wasn’t at the site, what it was really like. So the international response was based on news reports which have to be limited. So they had no idea what to do and nobody else in the world had any idea what to do at that time. But I think technically, at the end, they got control of it. Whether the government has control over the social issues is another matter.

Jiang: Japan has handled the situation very well, especially compared to Chernobyl for example. Of course, when an accident of this magnitude happens, it is very difficult to anticipate what to do. Because of a radioactive environment, you cannot send people into the plant to inspect; you don’t know what is going on inside the plant. The infrastructure is damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. They tried everything possible to contain the situation.

Maybe they deserve some criticism on their transparency; that’s true. In nuclear industries, we tend to be conservative. We don’t want to send out false alarms to evacuate people and then you realize it is not necessary. That makes things worse. During that period of time, it was a lot of hardship: People missing. Homes destroyed. It is a very, very difficult situation. In general, Japan handled this situation well.

Wren: Yes, Japan handled it reasonably well after the accident.

I don’t think Japan was doing a good job up to that point as there were lots of incidents and indications that they were lacking in transparency in terms of their safety record. The reaction from the international community was very suspicious initially toward Japan’s handling of the accident. They weren’t quite sure they were really up to it.

I agree with Jin that this accident was a once-in-a-thousand-year disaster. I am not sure one can prepare for that kind of disaster. Because there were so many things that went wrong, nobody knew exactly what was going on. Things happened inside the reactor where nobody can go in and inspect it.  It is not that they were trying to hide anything; it was just nobody knew what was going on.

In terms of the way the international community reacted, it didn’t really help Japan. The Fukushima reactor was only one of many, many problems they faced after the tsunami. The international community tried to help them face the large-magnitude disaster by pounding mostly on this issue. To me that is a sad thing.

Shoesmith: Yes, the focus on the nuclear incident only is probably distracting a lot of attention from the major catastrophe of lost and displaced people and destroyed infrastructure. They should be concentrating on dealing with all those social issues, which they may be for all we know. The Japanese don’t really tell you what they are doing all the time. But the focus on this one reactor, which is sitting there as a dead, slightly leaking unit or two, is to some degree misplaced. They should be looking after one enormous social disaster.

WN: Step back from it and talk a bit about what lessons the world can take, maybe even Canada as well, from the handling of the incident?

JIANG

JIANG

Jiang: Everything we do involves risk. When we build a nuclear power plant, we evaluate risks and rank them accordingly. We also have limited (financial) resources. For the risks which will remotely occur, we may not want to spend too many resources on something that it will never occur. But this time, this particular earthquake triggered a tsunami. This is something that very unlikely to happen, but unfortunately, it did happen in Japan.

Canadian reactors are CANDU-type of reactors. In Japan, they are BWR (boiling water reactor). The design is quite different. The CANDU reactor does not use a pressure vessel; what we use are pressure channels, about 380 channels. If a similar accident occurred here in the core, the effect would be more localized.

Also, Canada has very strict regulations. I am not saying Japan does not. But Canada’s are very strict.

In Canada, there is only one plant in New Brunswick that is on the ocean, but it is in a bay area. The rest are on lakes. So we don’t have the tsunami threat. We also have two transmission lines feeding to the site in case one transmission line loses power we still have a backup. If both are down, we have other emergency diesel-driven safety systems. Usually they are located on the higher ground. These kind of emergency systems are very well taken care of in Canada.

By design, Canadian reactors operate at a lower pressure. Overall, it’s an inherently safer design.

Shoesmith: The probability of this kind of accident happening at any Canadian station is effectively negligible. Only one Canadian reactor is on the ocean shore. The rest are on the edge of the Canadian Shield, which is one of the quietest seismic areas in the world. If you look at seismic activity in that region over the last 300-500 years, it has been minor. If you were to build a reactor in Vancouver, you might have a few more thoughts about how to protect it against this incident

But there are some lessons to be learned.

As pointed out by Clara, you don’t want weak regulation of reactor systems. Regulation should be strict and no one should be cutting any corners. Your credibility is based on your track record and a lack of credibility caused a problem for the Japanese when the incident occurred.

Additionally, this was an accident that challenged the integrity of the used fuel bay, as well as the reactor. When fuel comes out of a reactor it is allowed to accumulate underneath the reactor in a big swimming pool.  I don’t think anyone anticipated loss of cooling water to that site allowing the fuel to heat up and, potentially, melt down. So maybe we want to think again about how much fuel we want to store under a reactor, and how to guarantee cooling is maintained. I am not sure anyone considered that a source of a meltdown before.

WREN

WREN

Wren: This accident provides really rare data for the nuclear industry. So we should examine the data and see what we can learn about things we did not anticipate before this accident happened. It could help prepare us for the next unexpected natural disaster. It won’t be a tsunami, because we’ll be ready for a tsunami, but maybe something else. At least this will give an example of how we should prepare.

Besides helping in continuously improving the technology and safety of reactors, this accident teaches us about the impacts of an accident on the psychology and social dynamics of people.

Jiang: Some scientists could say this is a good thing.

Shoesmith: Well, it is only good in the non-social technical sense.

Jiang: Right. … It makes people think more to make the design inherently safe.

Shoesmith: We cannot forget that scientists and engineers learn from the mistakes they make in their laboratories or the malfunctioning of the systems they build and construct. Generally speaking, it’s the failure-analysis process – which is not usually anywhere near the Fukushima incident – which leads to better developed systems in the future. In that regard, this information will be beneficial to future generations because people will be aware of what the possibilities are. As Clara said, you will never be able to guarantee there will be no risk when faced with a 9.0 earthquake with an enormous tsunami. Nature wins those battles every time.

WN: How do you explain the continued viability of nuclear energy to the public in the face of tragedies like this? How do you trump fear with facts?

Shoesmith: In the face of a media torrent of misleading information, it is extremely difficult to do that which is why it is absolutely essential to have up-front credibility. When incidents happen you will have nothing people can rely on if they do not trust you. There is no argument to be made for secretive management. Careful attention to public relations is essential.

Most people are more sensible than people in the industry or the media give them credit for. They think a lot about the consequences of no energy.  They can look at a safety record and see how safe Canadian systems have been for a long time. I don’t see any panic in communities around Canadian nuclear stations. Before this incident, certainly in this province, public opinion was becoming pro-nuclear. People recognize the present need for nuclear generation of electricity.  I am not sure what public opinion is now, but I don’t think it has taken a big drop.

Wren: … I just came back from Poland, the International Congress of Radiation Research, and there were a lot of Japanese colleagues there. They are really pleading for people to come and really educate people on the effects of radiation. When an accident happens, usually people who are not knowledgeable about radiation, maybe because of sensationalism or some other reason, make very grandiose statements that are not based on facts. That puts up a barrier that my Japanese colleagues want help in removing.

… These days, everyone wants zero emissions. A perfect society. You cannot convince people that that is not practically possible; you can’t tell them that they cannot get what they wish for. In actual fact, if we want to have zero emissions, we have to eliminate all people because we all emit some radiation. Everybody is a tiny bit radioactive.

Shoesmith: That’s a great point. We have to get people to accept the limitations and risks of nuclear energy just as they understand the risks involved with driving, flying, thunderstorms and household electrical systems.  Nuclear power tends to be considered in a different category of risk. But there is no reason for that. The numbers should speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, debating the consequence of one power source vs. another makes you sound like Darth Vader. An argument that says ‘Well, this one only kills 50, but that one kills 1,000’ is hardly a reassuring one.

As Clara says, you have to get to the point where people understand all things have a risk.

Jiang: Historic data shows the consumption of energy by humans increases. Of course, solar, wind, tidal power sound very nice, clean and renewable. But the energy density is low. If you want to create a solar farm that creates as much energy as a nuclear power plant the footprint of the solar power plant would be a thousand times that of the nuclear plant. So by that, it causes an environmental problem. Not to mention if it is a cloudy day, no sun at night, you don’t have power. And we enjoy air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter; we have to do the cooking. You have this base load that is always there.

Take a minute and forget about nuclear. If we rely on solar and wind, what happens if no wind blows? No sun? You cannot cook; the food in your refrigerator will get rotten. We cannot do that. So we are fortunate to have nuclear power. You provide a very clean energy. During normal operation, it is a very clear power providing a very high density. …

From an emission point of view, and waste management, nuclear power can produce so-called nuclear waste, i.e. spent fuel. However when we burn coal or other fossil fuels, we generate waste right away and vent out to atmosphere. So would you rather have nuclear with waste that can be controlled and stored properly or just emit greenhouse gas into the environment? It’s really a balance.

Right now, we cannot depend solely on renewable energy. We just cannot. So we have to burn something. Burning the fossil fuel creates an environmental disaster. So nuclear is a potentially very important to our energy mixture.

Of course, there is the precondition that we keep nuclear safe. This is very important.

Shoesmith:  If North America stops building nuclear plants, it won’t be their safety that causes it. The demand that we engineer away all risk will lead to the adoption of unnecessary and redundant safety features. The costs of construction and operation will go up, and you will kill it economically. Cynical opponents of the technology know this.

So the danger to North American nuclear power is economic. Investors will avoid it since it takes too long to make a profit on their investment. The major reason Ontario isn’t building needed new plants is because the province does not have the money.

Jiang: One option now that they are talking about in the United States is a smaller, modular reactors. As David said, if you build a big one it costs a lot of money and the investment is huge up front. You don’t get any returns until 10-15 years later. But a smaller one is easier to build. You can build them in modules; you can build one and start to generate electricity and start to get some returns and then build a second one and so on. If there is an accident in the smaller one, it is easier to manage than in the bigger ones.

Wren: There are some examples of how countries reacted to accidents. For example, Sweden had a referendum after the Three Mile Island accident. Half of the electricity in Sweden comes from a nuclear reactor. Thirty years ago they decided to phase out their nuclear reactors. They did not outright stop using them, because they needed them, but they stopped building them, waiting for whatever technology would be available in 30 years’ time. But after the 30 years, they decided there wasn’t any new, better alternative technology. The referendum decision expired in 2010 and in January of this year their parliament announced that they would start building new reactors.

There are lots of examples, even after Chernobyl , of counties that decided to phase out nuclear power, but who have changed their minds, because there is no real better option.

One danger of policies to stop nuclear reactor construction is that people think we can build a reactor in a very short time, and that is not true. Hence this kind of policy can have a very long term impact.  But when it comes down to it, the best and most viable solution to long-term, base load electrical energy  is to maintain the operating nuclear reactors, and to build new ones when they become too old.

Even after Fukushima, Finland is continuing to build new reactors, and Poland has resumed its plans to build new reactors. I think most countries, after the initial excitement has past, are slowly coming back to a nuclear construction program.

Education is very important. Really, nuclear reactor safety is not a technology issue to me. We have been working in the nuclear industry for some time. There is no question in my mind that modern nuclear technology meets any reasonable standard for safety. It’s more a social and economical issue.

People tend to be concerned about the wrong safety issues. Rather than accept that very small levels of radiation is acceptable, like the background level that naturally surrounds us, they have a misdirected focus on zero emissons. This could actually lead to less safety, because we put lots of resources into taking care of perceived safety issues and don’t address real safety issues. I don’t know how we are going to educate people because many do not have enough technical background, but at the same time we need to do it, to address the societal and economic issues. I think that is tricky.

I am not optimistic about Canada’s near term nuclear program. Canada has a lot of natural resources; so they can be rather complacent about this technology.

Shoesmith:  Yes, you get a different perspective on nuclear energy if you go to China or South Korea. Very different.

Wren: Oh yes, very different. And because Canada is a very rich country with large natural resources, it tends to focus on other problems. But we should also prepare – in terms of economy and society – to think more and more globally. It is a shame that we in Canada don’t think about worldwide energy needs. There is no way that conservation and things like that will solve the future global energy crisis. People who think that are very naive. Developing countries and under-developed countries need more energy, lots and lots of it. To me, Canada, which has been a leader in nuclear technology, has a role to play in solving global energy problems. Nuclear energy is very important in that mix.

We need to move beyond whether we need to build one more nuclear reactor in Canada. W e need to build more reactors worldwide. I don’t think we have any other option.

Jiang: Education of the public on nuclear power is very important. If you don’t know about something, you tend to be scared of it. But if you know what is inside, what is going on, you tend to be more comfortable with it.

To me, the wealth of a nation is important. I don’t know if you listened to President Obama’s speech to Congress last night. He wants to put three words – ‘Made in America’ – on products. And in Canada also, if we want to say ‘Made in Canada,’ you have got to have power to produce things.

Look at Ontario infrastructure, Pickering Nuclear Power Plant east of Toronto will be shut down permanently because the reactor is 40 years old. OK, where are we going to get the power? How can we produce things to sell to the world?

Now people say we should not use gasoline, cut down on emissions. So they use plug-in electrical cars. That’s fine. But where do you get electricity? People don’t think about that. The way to produce electricity more cheaply, more efficiently is through nuclear power. Everything is intertwined – nuclear energy, energy mixture, the environment, wealth of a nation, ability to manufacture.

In my opinion, it’ll be difficult to pull off the ‘Made in America’ idea because they don’t have enough power. China is the manufacturer of the world. Now they are building almost 40 reactors at the moment because they know in order to manufacture things, you need power.

Sometimes we are quite naive.

Wren: In Canada, we have about 18 nuclear reactors with power capacities that range from 600-1,000 megawatts (MW) per reactor. If you wanted to replace the power from four 600 MW units with power from windmills, you would need a row of windmills that would stretch from Toronto all the way to Lake Louise (Alberta). And that’s assuming the wind turbines run all the time.

The problem of convincing the general public of the value of nuclear power and the challenge in replacing it is that numbers do not mean much to them. I don’t think they have a really good concept of how much energy comes from nuclear reactors.

Shoesmith: We still believe we can live the way we are by solving our problems simply and cheaply. We think we can bury CO2 and not curb the burning of fossil fuels, put out solar panels and collect sunshine for free, convert crops to gas and continue driving. We want it to be cheap and easy and to require no lifestyle compromises. It is not going to be that quick and easy.