Nuclear Power and Superstorms Don’t Mix

Now is the time to assess future risks to our dependence on nuclear energy

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In this satellite view, the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant is seen after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 14, 2011 in Futaba, Japan

Superstorm Sandy’s unexpected wrath makes a powerful case for revisiting Fukushima and the dangers to nuclear energy from natural disasters. As Sandy made landfall on Atlantic City, Oyster Creek nuclear power plant nearby was fortunately on a scheduled outage. But Indian Point 3 in Buchanan, N.Y., Nine Mile Point 1 in Scriba, N.Y., and Salem Unit 1 in Hancocks Bridge, N.J., all experienced shutdowns because of high water levels or electrical disruption. Last year, the dangerous Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown was caused by similar conditions after tsunami waves flooded the plant and short-circuited both the regular and back-up electrical systems.

Equally dangerous are drought and record heat conditions the U.S. experienced last summer. In August, one of two reactors at the Millstone nuclear power plant near New London, Conn., not far from where I grew up, was shut down because water in Long Island Sound needed to cool the reactors got too warm. Cool water is necessary to produce electricity.

(MORE: Will We Be Seeing More Superstorms?)

Fukushima has been a worldwide wakeup call, particularly for the United States, the country with the largest number of reactors — 104. The lesson is glaringly obvious: when nature and nuclear energy collide the consequences can be lethal. Unfortunately, Japan is not offering an inspiring example of how to handle this threat. While all but two of the country’s 50 reactors remain offline, government and nuclear industry are proposing plant restarts and construction projects. This muddled move stands against the majority of Japanese citizens who have turned against nuclear power. As we face an increasingly volatile climate, the United States could conceivably lead the way in reducing dependence on nuclear energy.

(MORE: Is Post-Fukushima Japan Safe for Tourists?)

Of course, nuclear power can bring significant economic benefits. The Nuclear Energy Institute states that every year the average U.S. plant generates about $470 million in sales and services and about $40 million in total labor income to local communities. NEI adds that about $16 million goes toward state and local tax revenue and that operating plants create 400 to 700 full-time jobs. That nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases has also been a powerful argument for nuclear advocates. Another is energy independence. For energy-hungry Japan where fossil fuels must be imported, nuclear power has offered a stable source with controlled prices independent from the volatile Middle East.

But we must weigh the risks. It’s estimated that superstorm Sandy will affect more than one fifth of Americans and cost up to $20 billion in damages. Imagine the addition of a major nuclear accident, potentially more lethal than Three Mile Island. The health, environmental and economic costs would be, simply put, insurmountable. It’s time to face the facts: Mother Nature rules. The best we can do is try to lessen the damage from her wrath. Phasing out nuclear power is the safe answer.

PHOTOS: Japan One Year Later

10 comments
damspahn
damspahn

How insane to take a risk with something as permanently toxic as nuclear.  Put them on the shores, and just hope nothing happens?  That society doesn't deserve to survive, it's just too stupid.

KaptKaos
KaptKaos

As much as I'd like to take a scriptwriter's opinion on a highly technical topic at face value (/sarcasm), the first four words render the remaing verbiage null and void:

"Superstorm Sandy's unexpected wrath"

Wait, what?  The unexpected wrath that was accurately predicted days ahead of time, in great detail, allowing emergency equipment to be doublechecked and preparations finalized?  The unexpected wrath that fell well below the levels these "vulnerable" plants have withstood time and time again?  The unexpected wrath that led to effects that are entirely within the scope of prior (safely managed) events?

I'm glad scriptwriters are precluded from making unilateral society-level decisions on energy sources.

music66
music66

You present no evidence of actual "lives lost", or even "hurt", from nuclear power emergencies, yet your conclusion is "Phasing out nuclear power is the safe answer"? Over 15,000 people died from the Tohoku Tsunami, and how many Americans from Sandy? Of that total, how many were directly related to nuclear power plants? Zero.

storminukeworker
storminukeworker

looking at the history of Hurricanes a prime example comes to mind.  Hurricane Andrew made a direct hit to Homestead Fl, home of Turkey point nuclear plant and although there was a lot of external damage there was NO DAMAGE TO THE NUCLEAR side of the plant and the plant remained in a safe condition.  I repeat this was a direct hit, you can most likely find pictures of the plant after the hurricane hit.  all plants are built with primary, secondary and tertiary plans in place to deal with a myriad of issues the general public would never even think of.

1CaptD
1CaptD

@foe_nuclear @TIMEIdeas Neither do THIN WALL RSG tubing and Radioactive Core Coolant, like at San Onofre! #NukeFreeCal

LokHupBaFa
LokHupBaFa

Also the cost of nuclear power is artificially low, because it is subsidized by the government.  When Britain was looking at continuing their programs, due to facilities aging out, they ran the numbers... nuclear is the most expensive power, and it never makes back the money cost of construction, shut downs and start ups.  Each of those shut downs and start ups cost millions.   We can't afford the monetary cost of nuclear, if we could companies wouldn't need government backed grantees to build the plants in the first place.

keydetpiper
keydetpiper

This is unusual for an anti-nuclear article in that most of the information presented here is actually true. It's true that several plants shut down as a result of conditions created by Sandy. It's true that Millstone reduced power in August when its ultimate heat sink was too warm. Everyone will agree that strong storm conditions could potentially be bad for a nuclear plant... which is why they shut down. I don't see how a plant responding to adverse conditions in EXACTLY THE WAY IT WAS DESIGNED TO DO suggests that nuclear power is unsafe. Every plant in the path of the storm was prepared for emergency situations and had contingencies, and as a result of good planning and robust designs nothing bad happened. I repeat: NOTHING BAD HAPPENED.

Phasing out nuclear energy is not the solution to any energy problem. Anti-nuke people constantly cite safety as a concern, but if plants could be designed to operate safely and respond to adverse situations 40 years ago, what makes you think that the next generation of plants being designed and constructed will be less safe?

NuclearEngineer
NuclearEngineer

Considering that TMI killed zero people, calling any nuclear accident "potentially more lethal than TMI" is a pretty weak argument. Also, nuclear power plants in the US have been hit by tornadoes and hurricanes for decades, yet we've never had a weather-related severe accident. Clearly they seem to have a better grip on this issue than this journalist suggests.

Even in Japan, most of the NPPs (like Onagawa, which was closest to epicenter and actually housed hundreds of locals whose houses were destroyed by tsunami) weathered a 9.0 earthquake and a massive tsunami. High winds and some flooding during a hurricane would seem like a much easier task to deal with.

Also, I assume this author realizes that it's a lot easier to plan for a known storm surge (Sandy's projected path was known for days) than it is to plan for a tsunami (only a few minutes warning). I'd assume that if Oyster Creek had been operating, they still would have had a plan to deal with Sandy.

But I'm just a PhD student in nuclear engineering, so I'm sure this journalist must know more than me......

MarkGoldes
MarkGoldes

A solar superstorm is surprisingly possible. Widespread awareness that itcould end 200 million lives in the U.S. might serve to change the politicalpicture, and accelerate the superseding of fossil fuels.See Perspectives at www.aesopinstitute.org for substantial informationregarding this and two other Ticking Time Bombs, one of which is climatechange.Since a solar storm can cause blackouts lasting for months, it could destroythe nation. This is an unrecognized National Security issue!Prevention of the worst is possible with wise rapid action. Ironically, what isneeded can sharply improve the economy and generate jobs.Attending to this threat should be high on the White House agenda.Survival of our families may prove to be a very powerful motivation.Illuminating the problem and possible positive actions might change the odds.

man4earth
man4earth

@keydetpiper We have twenty some years to go with many existing plants, droughts, floods, storms and extreme temperatures are increasing in frequency and intensifying. Powerful earthquakes have increased dramatically in recent years. The cost of renewable energy now ranges from on par to much cheaper than nuclear with no risk, no pollution and no concerns about fuel supply or cost, and they can be brought online much faster. Why would we want to continue to use this dangerous problem plagued energy source that can destroy us and the planet for future generations? There is absolutely no need to.