CNN offers a two-minute video on a question that will get plenty of attention after the series of nuclear emergencies in Japan this week, which is whether the aftermath of the disasters in Japan will slow or stall the American expansion of nuclear power planned by both Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress. Democrats like Ed Markey in the House and Joe Lieberman in the Senate want to “put the brakes on” efforts to build new plants in the US, at least temporarily. CNN leaves out important context that might explain why delays would actually put the US at greater risk:
The clip treats proposed nuclear plants and existing nuclear plants as essentially identical, but that’s far from true — and the difference matters. Nuclear reactors in the US are based on decades-old designs, as is Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. The designs have been resilient and safe for a very long time; it took an extraordinary event to make the Fukushima plant a danger, and even in the disaster the design has withstood catastrophic events without exposing the core, at least for now.
For one thing, CNN apparently can’t read a map. Most of the proposed new nuclear stations are intended for areas east of the Rockies, where geologic events like the quake in Japan can reasonably be expected to be extremely rare. As California’s San Onofre nuclear power station proved, we know how to build power plants to withstand quakes in geologically active areas, even in old designs.
New plants would use more modern designs, which would be better equipped to deal with disaster. Pebble-bed reactors, for instance, do not generate the steam pressures associated with the Fukushima failures, nor do they use or produce hydrogen (non-combustible helium is used, or nitrogen). In the case of catastrophic disaster, the core can be much more easily cooled and contained. Other designs also improve on containment, efficiency, and overall safety.
Unless we start building new nuclear plants, we will have to keep existing plants with older designs in operation longer. That extends rather than abates the safety issues that currently are receiving so much attention. Either we keep existing plants open, or we will need to replace current supplies from nuclear power — which accounts for almost 20% of our electricity. Given the administration’s push for conversion of transportation from gasoline to electricity, the need to replace that power will be immediate enough to require a greater use of coal and natural gas, both of which the administration opposes in either use or extraction, or both.
So far, Obama has held firm on his support for expansion of nuclear power, but Politico wonders just how long that will last:
“President Obama has shown very poor judgment on where and when to ‘agree’ with Republicans, and energy has been a prime example,” Drew Westin, an Emory University neuroscience professor who has advised Democrats on communications, wrote in a post Monday on POLITICO’s Arena forum.
“He proposed expanding offshore oil drilling two weeks before the BP disaster and did the same for nuclear power just months before the Japanese disaster,” Westin said. “God help us if an earthquake of this magnitude had occurred near a U.S. nuclear plant.”
Obama’s all-in on nuclear power has been building since he came into office. He pushed cap-and-trade legislation that federal studies showed would lead to construction of 100 reactors and backed spending on research into new plant designs.
In November, he said nuclear energy was an issue of potential compromise with Republicans; and earlier this year, he used his State of the Union address to call for nuclear to be counted alongside traditional renewables such as solar and wind as part of a national “clean” energy standard.
Obama needs to explain the difference between older and proposed nuclear power plants better than the media if he hopes to win this argument.