Lately, it seems like every time I flip on the news I am overwhelmed and saddened by horrific acts of violence and unfortunate catastrophes that are claiming lives and devastating communities. The tragedy in Japan is heartbreaking, and as the news unfolds, the situation for the people of Japan seems to get worse and worse. Like me, much of the world sits watching in disbelief at the earthquake, tsunami, one-two punch. Indeed, damage at the Fukushima nuclear facility has moved the debate about nuclear power front and center.
ELAW Staff Scientist Mark Chernaik has analyzed nearly a dozen Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for proposed nuclear power facilities around the world. Mark shares his thoughts on what we can learn from Fukushima in a Guest Viewpoint in today’s Register-Guard.
The following is an excerpt:
“The first lesson is that nuclear power plants located in coastal areas are vulnerable to tsunamis. Although a powerful earthquake shook the Fukushima facility, a tsunami knocked out the emergency generators that ran pumps that cooled the reactors. Without sufficient cooling, the reactors overheated, causing the buildup of steam and hydrogen gas, resulting in explosions and release of radioactivity.
The second lesson is that on-site storage of spent nuclear fuel poses a separate and perhaps greater risk than nuclear fuel in the reactor core itself.
Because Japan, like many countries (including the U.S.), lacks facilities for the long-term storage of nuclear waste, spent nuclear fuel rods are stored on-site in pools of water. Spent fuel rods pose a serious risk because they are not stored inside the thick concrete containment vessel that surrounds nuclear reactor cores, and because spent fuel rods contain a more toxic mixture of radioisotopes (cesium-137, strontium-90, and iodine-131) than new nuclear fuel. Spent nuclear fuel rods require continuous cooling just like new fuel rods in the reactor core. If spent fuel rods experience excessive heating and crack open, toxic radioisotopes are released directly into the environment because there is no containment structure around them.
“At [ELAW] we are insuring that lessons from Fukushima are shared across borders…. We inform our partners that new nuclear power plants may be poor investments compared to improvements in energy conservation and renewable energy sources.”
Our hearts go out to the people of Japan.