George Kenney's Electric Politics (EP) podcast is one of the top ten political podcasts in the country. Produced once a week on Friday mornings and boasting a theme song written by BJ Leiderman (who also writes the music for NPR radio shows), EP is more than just a wonky political theory show. Kenney has informal, timely conversations with fascinating guests on hot topics. Recently Kenny spoke with Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and a leading authority on nuclear fusion who has 37 years of experience in nuclear energy issues.
For people who assume that older nuclear plants in the U.S. are being replaced with safer, newer designs and that nuclear waste is now being safely and securely disposed of off-site, think again. The disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant -- and this interview with Dr. Makhijani -- will change your mind.
Happy Talk About Nuclear Power Fails to Address Problems
Some pundits have described Fukushima as a much lower-level problem than Chernobyl, and politicians who take money from the nuclear industry (like Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas) have even gone so far as to declare nuclear energy is 100 percent safe. These types of pronouncements may decrease now that the Japanese government has officially changed the rating of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to a level 7 -- the highest possible level on the international scale used to evaluate the seriousness of nuclear incidents. The only other nuclear incident in history that earned that rating was the accident at Chernobyl in 1986.
But Dr. Makhijani explains that for the first time in history, seven major sources of radioactivity have been stricken all at once: three reactors whose core cooling systems failed, and four spent fuel pools containing highly radioactive used fuel. The total inventory affected at Fukushima is far greater than that at Chernobyl because of the used fuel buildup. Fukushima has 25 years worth of spent nuclear fuel stored on site, plus three reactors with active fuel in them -- roughly 20 times the radioactivity as Chernobyl.
Five of the six reactors at the Fukushima plant are General Electric Mark 1 reactors. Thirty five years ago, in 1976, three nuclear engineers employed at General Electric resigned their jobs and joined the anti-nuclear movement after they became convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing was so flawed that it could lead to a devastating accident. They were known at the time as the GE Three. The reactor design they protested was General Electric's Mark 1. Since then, GE has retrofitted Mark 1 reactors around the globe in response to modifications ordered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Those orders were also shared with the Japanese nuclear industry.
In his interview, Dr. Makhijani remarked that he is "shocked at the pervasive nature of the assumption that everything here [in the U.S.] is okay." After all, we discovered numerous problems at Fukushima, for example that the battery systems backing up these plants need to be upgraded, and that these reactors' emergency core functions didn't work effectively, among other problems. But it is a big mistake to believe we can engineer a nuclear power system that will have zero accidents, he says. If we're going to have nuclear power, we're going to have accidents, period.
The "happy talk" about nuclear power in the U.S. is that incidents like the one that happened in Japan have an extremely low probability of occurrence, but now we are seeing an extremely-low-probability event unfold before our very eyes -- seven major radioactivity sources being stricken at once. "We couldn't have imagined it," he says, "but here it is."
Dr. Makhijani offers an analogy:
Imagine that you go to the hospital and need a blood transfusion. The hospital administrator tells you, "We're going to give you blood that hasn't been screened for HIV. It's a very low probability that you would get HIV," he says, reassuring you that the risk is infinitesimally small. But you would likely refuse the transfusion. Why? Because all blood should be screened for HIV. The consequences of not doing so are catastrophic to the whole population. So why do we use a different risk analysis when it comes to instances of potentially huge disaster, like a nuclear power plant disaster?
Like Japan, American nuclear plants have been allowed to store huge amounts of spent fuel in dense configurations in cooling pools. The NRC hasn't been willing to impose an order, whose cost would be relatively modest, to move these large caches of spent fuels to safer, hardened dry storage.
Riskier Than We Think?
Dr. Makhijani says we need to re-evaluate the probability that a catastrophic nuclear power plant accident will occur in the U.S. The world has seen accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now disastrous problems at three reactors and four spent fuel pools at Fukujima. In all, that makes nine major sources of radioactivity that have been stricken, out of about 500 nuclear reactors around the world. Major accidents occurring at nine out of 500 reactor plants should be a high enough risk factor "to make people sit up and take notice," he warns. People are under the impression that reactors in the U.S. are safer, of a better design and that we have a better regulatory system than plants in foreign countries. Perhaps the latter is true. We may have a better regulatory system than Russia did, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's reluctance to impose reasonable costs on the industry to make plants safer is not a good sign. Currently in the U.S., nuclear plants are self-inspecting and self-reporting -- yet another red flag in a process that isn't good enough to assure the maximum possible safety from domestic nuclear accidents.
Nuclear energy is a big gamble, both in the U.S. and abroad. We've been living with a set of bad choices, and for the most part, the discussion has been portrayed as one of either nuclear energy or fossil fuels. "We can do better," Dr. Makhijani, says, adding that he didn't think we could go to 100 percent renewable energy sources until he studied the issue at the insistence of a mentor who used to run the Tennessee Valley Authority. Now Makhjani concludes that we actually do have the technology to get rid of both fossil fuels and nuclear energy in a reasonable amount of time. After all, China is investing in renewable power, and Germany is going to 100 percent renewables and has an official plan to do it that has buy-in from the country's chancellor. The U.S. is lagging in this technological race by failing to lay the essential groundwork to make it happen. We're doing things out of order, like haphazardly installing smart meters before a "smart" electricity grid has been constructed.
Dr. Makhijani's point of view has been largely glossed over by the mainstream media, and is being drowned out by happy talk from the nuclear energy industry and its allied cheerleaders in the legislature. You can listen to his entire interview here.