Japan's Quake & the Future of Nuclear Power

By Keith Kloor | March 14, 2011 10:25 am

The news out of Japan keeps getting worse, and the images are heartrending.

The situation with the nuclear reactors continue to unfold in an alarming manner. For those trying to grasp the technical side of that story, I found this write-up in Nature quite helpful.

Most of the news media coverage right now is understandably focused on Japan, but at some point in the U.S. we’ll see more stories like this one in Science:

“This [Japanese] earthquake is going to be the benchmark for the Pacific Northwest when the Cascadia fault breaks,” says seismologist John Vidale of the University of Washington, Seattle. “We know that it can have an earthquake of this magnitude. It’s a question of when, not if.

What’s happened in Japan this past week also has huge implication for U.S. energy policy, and, as a subset of that, the climate change debate.

  • Dean

    Living in the PNW, the possibility of a Cascadia Subduction Zone disaster in these parts is something that gets a lot of attention in general, not just now. Although the impact from this tsunami in OR and WA was small, it was a test of the system –¬† a real test.
    ¬
    There is only so much that you can do when the source of the tsunami is so close and the time for response small. But the coastal mountain ranges mean that there are no large cities right on the coast of OR and WA, and those same mountains in many cases will offer fairly close high ground for residents to flee to quickly. Their towns will be gone, but it’s reasonable to think that loss of life can be held low. I don’t think there is a way for so many people in a city the size of Sendai to all get away in 30 minutes or less. But most people in a town like Astoria are very close to high ground. There are also proposals that coastal towns all build strong concrete buildings for their town halls that will be designed to withstand tsunamis.
    ¬
    I wonder what the topography of Puget Sound does. With such a narrow opening, does it protect Seattle? That seems to be the biggest wildcard for the tsunami impact. As to the earthquake, we only learned about the potential for this disaster relatively recently, so building standards only date to about 20 years ago.
    ¬
    As to any resurgence of nuclear energy in the US, I’m assuming that is off the table now. I only wonder if there will be an impact in places like Brazil and China.

  • harrywr2

    Concerns in the Pacific Northwest
    1) Mt Rainier, 4.5 billion cubic meters of snow and ice that will melt  instantly in an eruption.
    2) Earthquakes
    3) Tsunami
    We know all of these things. We have volcano and tsunami escape route signs on our streets.
    If one replaces a water heater the water heater costs $800 and the earthquake straps, safety valves etc cost another $300.
    ¬
    As far as impacts as a result of Japan to energy policy, I haven’t heard any of our glorious leaders says anything other then we should look for lessons learned and apply them. Seems pretty prudent to me.
    ¬
    ¬
     

  • NewYorkJ

    I’m no expert on this, but I think Dean might be missing one potential for much further devastation than the immediate coastlines of OR/WA: the Columbia River.¬† It might sound ridiculous in hindsight, given the minimal impact on the west coast, but Portland, OR¬†was under tsunami watch last week.¬† A large tsunami could cause river levels to rise¬†substantially for some time, causing major flooding in the city.

    As for nuclear power, cost has been¬†an inhibitor, and the recent disaster in Japan¬†might add to that.¬† On a day-to-day basis, nuclear¬†has far less environmental costs than burning coal,¬†but there’s always been a small risk of a high impact event, which nuclear enthusiasts tend to downplay.¬† Renewables (mainly wind power) and efficient natural gas has been taking more market share from coal in the U.S. in recent years.¬† I don’t expect that to change much going forward.¬† I suppose the coal industry could try to take advantage of the nuclear problems, but they are going to have a difficult case to make on environmental grounds these days.

  • David Palmer

    If the the Japanese earthquake was to put the kybosh on expanding nuclear power generation, gone are any hopes of reining in CO2 emissions this side of the depletion of fossil fuel reserves.

  • ivp0

    @4 ¬†“If the the Japanese earthquake was to put the kybosh on expanding nuclear power generation, gone are any hopes of reining in CO2 emissions this side of the depletion of fossil fuel reserves.”
    Bingo! Wind and solar simply cannot get it done.

  • Gaythia

    In addition to the excellent Nature article on reactor technology that Keith cites above, I recommend Andrew Maynard’s analysis of Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster and its implications to public health.¬† This can be found over at the University of Michigan Risk Science Blog here: http://umrscblogs.org/2011/03/13/the-fukushima-nuclear-reactor-disaster-and-its-implications-to-public-health/
    In response to #3 above, I think that it is important to point out that costs associated with the all aspects of energy production ought to be done taking into account the total energy expended.  Too often costs do not take into account the hidden subsidy of the current low monetary cost of fossil fuel resources.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Just FYI for those unable to access the blog earlier in the day: the host servers were down for at least a few hours–a vexing problem that seems to happen more frequently with Dreamhost.

  • TimG

    Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

    As of this moment there is no nuclear disaster in Japan.

    What we have are minor radiation leaks and 2 reactors which needed to be scuttled in order to protect the public. This is bad for the operators but is not an environmental concern.

  • NewYorkJ

    A way forward without nuclear (or coal):

    http://www.energyeconomyonline.com/Clean_Energy_Plan.html

  • David Palmer

    BraveNewClimate is a good source of news on the Fukushima Nuclear problems: http://bravenewclimate.com.

  • Dean

    #8 – @TimG
    ¬
    You have a gift for understatement.
    ¬
    There is no public radiation disaster – yet – but scuttling billions of dollars worth of energy generation infrastructure and dealing with rolling blackouts as a result is not exactly what I’d describe as “bad for the operators.”
    ¬
    Aren’t blackouts what nuclear advocates have told renewable advocates that we would get if we depend too much on wind and solar?
    ¬
    @3 NewYorkJ – My guess is that everywhere up to Kelso and those towns at the first major bend in the Colmbia, where it turns south, would get the brunt of any flooding from the Columbia. Isn’t Portland something like 100 miles up? Not saying there wouldn’t be any damages, but it’s hard to imagine major flooding there.

  • Roddy Campbell
  • Pascvaks

    An ancient saying: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

    An old saying: ” If you want something done right, hire good men.”

    A more recent 20th Century saying: “If you want something done right, hire a specialist.”

    The latest saying: “If you want something done, go to China or India, otherwise just BS on the Web.”

    China and India will do fine thank you very much, but I’m not too sure about the rest of the World.¬† We don’t seem to do anything but daydream and talk.

    “The future of nuclear power?”

    We’re talking about our future.¬† No nuclear power = no future.¬† Life’s a beach!¬† Some spell it with an “i” and a “t” instead of an “ea”.¬† Wake up people!¬† We’ve been smoking too much¬†opium lately!

  • Gaythia

    Regarding the Pacific Northwest:  Remember that tsunamis are caused by earthquakes. The concern in the Portland Oregon area centers on the  actual earthquake and the  poor level of earthquake preparedness of many schools and other public buildings.
    Seattle has it’s own fault, the Seattle fault, which has a past record of causing Puget Sound tsunamis.¬† Note that this would affect mainly the waterfront:¬† http://www.seattlepi.com/local/211158_tsunamiseattle08.html¬†¬† But this would occur with a major earthquake that would affect the city and surroundings.¬†¬† King County issued an announcement that the wave height of the Japanese tsunami at the Seattle waterfront in Puget Sound was 4.5 inches.
    Tsunami risks would depend, as they did in Japan, in large part on the timing and the ability of coastal residents to make a dash for nearby hills.  There are some areas where continental shelf, sandbars and harbor configurations magnify the waves.   Crescent City CA is unlucky in this regard.
    Information, written for public consumption, in Oregon regarding earthquake and tsunami information can be found here; http://www.oregongeology.com/tsuclearinghouse/resources/pdfs/shakygroundmagazine_Oregon.pdf
    Yumei Wang, Geotechnical Engineer and Geohazards team leader with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries has been a leader in efforts to get Oregon to take its risks seriously.
    http://www.oregongeology.com/sub/FIELDOFFICES/profile-wang.htm
     

  • harrywr2

    #11 Dean
    ‘dealing with rolling blackout’
    There wouldn’t be rolling blackouts if Japan’s fossil and hydro plants were fully functioning. Most ‘developed’ countries build generating capacity to 20% above peak summer load. Japans nuclear plants comprise 30% of generating capacity and 70% of them are up and running. Something else has to be broken as well.
    My guess would be that the natural gas has been turned off pending pipeline inspections. Considering houses were ripped off their foundations it’s 100% certain that there is pipeline damage.
    ¬
    Northwest Flooding in a Tsunami –
    Tsunami evacauation maps have been done for Washington State and the hazard areas and evacuation routes  all have street signs.
    http://www.dnr.wa.gov/ResearchScience/Topics/GeologyPublicationsLibrary/Pages/tsuevac.aspx.
    ¬
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  • Marlowe Johnson

    Gotta agree with harrywr2 on this one.

  • Dean_1230

    One thing I’ve not seen talked about much is thorium reactors.¬† According to wikipedia (yea, i know… great source), thorium reactors have the potential to be a much cleaner source of nuclear power.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_fuel_cycle
    Of course, the benefits are “touted”, not proven.¬† And with any new technology, the devil is in the details. Still…

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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