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One Year Later
March 11, 2012 3:41 PM   Subscribe

On the one year anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, the Economist magazine now considers Nuclear energy to be "the dream that failed", in an issue with articles covering the history, safety issues, handling of nuclear waste, and costs (with emphasis on China) of nuclear power.

See also: The Big Picture on Japan tsunami pictures: before and after and Japan's nuclear refugees.
posted by vidur (50 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's kind of awful that my first reaction to the Japanese refugees link was to be in awe of the seeming quality of their temporary housing.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:47 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Regardless of where you stand on the basic safety of nuclear power (and whether the governments and/or agencies have fallen prey to regulatory capture), the current climate against anything "nuclear" (viz. the extreme American phobia to "irradiated" foods) has contributed to an environment that has prevented the modernization of the nuclear power infrastructure, and left many places in the world still using outdated plants (I'm looking in the direction of Fukushima daiichi).

The current social and political climate of fear is bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy -- without new plants, old plants which have outdated designs and safety systems will become increasingly relied upon.
posted by chimaera at 3:50 PM on March 11, 2012 [23 favorites]


There was an interesting op-ed piece in today's LA Times about the actual health consequences of the Fukushima disaster. Short version: the actual increased cancer risks for affected populations will in all likelihood be too small to measure.

Ironically, that probably won't be true of the massive increase in coal burning resulting from Japan's shutting down of its nuclear plants. There are no easy answers on the energy front.
posted by yoink at 3:55 PM on March 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


So... how 'bout "Brit Writer"? He still "Pro Nuke", I wonder?

Kinda interesting to go back to that thread now.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:58 PM on March 11, 2012


viz. the extreme American phobia to "irradiated" foods

I'm with you on the irrationality of that, but I don't think it's fair to single the US out on that issue. I believe the Europeans are the most hysterically resistant to irradiated foods.
posted by yoink at 3:58 PM on March 11, 2012


I don't think it's fair to single the US out on that issue. I believe the Europeans are the most hysterically resistant to irradiated foods.

Fair point. I'm actually not familiar with European resistance to irradiated foods, I just remember noting, with some irony, that in 28 days later, when they went into an abandoned supermarket, they found a palette of oranges that were still fine. "Ah, irradiated" was what the character said and I realized that I don't think I've *ever* seen a single example of irradiated produce here in the US. If so, they certainly never labeled it.
posted by chimaera at 4:04 PM on March 11, 2012


So... how 'bout "Brit Writer"? He still "Pro Nuke", I wonder?

George Monbiot. And I believe the answer is yes.
posted by Jehan at 4:08 PM on March 11, 2012


some irradiated foods are legal in US supermakets--they're not often carried, though, because of customer resistance. I don't believe that any irradiated food is legally allowed in the UK.
posted by yoink at 4:09 PM on March 11, 2012


George Monbiot. And I believe the answer is yes.

Of course I knew his name. The 'Brit Writer' usage was intended as a nod to the Metafilter post.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:11 PM on March 11, 2012


My apologies. It was a funny usage, I agree.
posted by Jehan at 4:12 PM on March 11, 2012


I would be interested to see anything Monbiot's written about Fukushima in recent times. If anyone happens to have any links handy, that'd be most appreciated!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:13 PM on March 11, 2012


Here's a fairly recent piece by Monbiot making the general case for nuclear power. It doesn't directly take on Fukushima (and, really, why should it? No one at all is suggesting building more plants of that style), but it makes the environmentalist case for nuclear power pretty well.
posted by yoink at 4:16 PM on March 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Enriched-Uranium-based nuclear power succeeded insomuch as it enabled nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers, and the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

That was its original design goal, after all.

The future of nuclear power is going to have to be decoupled from nuclear warfare or else peoples (quite rational) opposition to nuclear proliferation is going to continue to be conflated with nuclear power.
posted by anthill at 4:37 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Before dismissing atomic energy production so readily, see how it has worked in France.
How and why it differs in France: it is run and regulated by the government and the safety record has been very goodl
atomic energy in France
posted by Postroad at 4:56 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"In order to rescue their cat and dog after their home was placed under government control they covered themselves in aluminum foil and snuck in under the cover of night."
posted by zippy at 5:24 PM on March 11, 2012


In America, the most perfect nuclear reactor in the world will typically be run for profit by secretive human vultures and will probably be ordered to stay in operation until the day it fails. It's not the integrity of the plant that matters the most. It's the integrity of the culture and people who operate it. Nobody in America is going to buy them a new house in another state to move into, which is the same reason the future managers could have their hands tied by deregulators and may let the plant dangerously decay first, because the downside costs of failure are relatively low.
posted by Brian B. at 5:45 PM on March 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


and, really, why should it? No one at all is suggesting building more plants of that style

???

The big lesson of Fukushima for me is how fucking hard it is to deal with the waste in the short term. I couldn't care less what they do with the stuff over the 10,000 year term, I don't believe that to be such a monumental problem really. For the first 15-20 years the power output from the stuff is crazy high, making active water cooling a necessity. Storage and handling of waste in the short term is really messy expensive and risky business.
posted by Chuckles at 7:14 PM on March 11, 2012


Got to be pretty hard to sneak when you're covered in aluminium foil.
posted by estuardo at 8:08 PM on March 11, 2012


without new plants, old plants which have outdated designs and safety systems will become increasingly relied upon.

The risks and problems with nuclear power are so high and so systemic that simply building some shiny new plants won't solve anything. Sure, new plants would eliminate some legacy problems but they wouldn't be a panacea. I couldn't disagree with your interpretation of what's wrong with nuclear more.
posted by quadog at 9:33 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nuclear power has been run by the government in the UK and had a mediocre safety record (British Nuclear Fuels being wholly held by the government for most of its life). I don't think public/private ownership is a particularly good filter here, since many problems in Japan can be laid at the feet of the government too.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:56 PM on March 11, 2012


At least when that monument to hubris the Titanic sank, it stayed sunk.

The day may come when a fission technology is demonstrably safe, from the mines to the waste, and doesn't require sacrifice areas, unspoken human sacrifices, risks forced on the unknowing and innocent, government insurance, lies, coverups, secrecy, payoffs, lobbyists, lies, outrageous costs and a constant stream of apologists and spin-doctors to keep lurching back to its feet.

We are far from that day. Until then, there are better ways.
posted by Twang at 12:08 AM on March 12, 2012


Before nuclear power can seriously be considered a competitive energy source two problems have to be solved:

1) Safety
You can minimize the risk all you want, as long as there is a remaining risk you have to factor in the enormous costs (both financial and in human lifes) that the risk case presents. Just because something is unlikely you can't factor it out of your planning. At least you should properly insure yourself against it. Rates should be cheap if the remaining risk is so small, right? Wrong. Currently no nuclear power plant is insured by private companies because it is just too expensive. Which brings us to the second problem

2) Economics
The history of nuclear energy is a history of government subsidies. The government financed the research and built the prototypes and research reactors. Building of commercial power plants regularly involves massive government investments. Currently taxpayers foot the bill for much of the safety and emergency measures (including insurance). This ranges from the government having to step in to modernize plants to the dealing with citizen protest (police costs money) all the way to disaster response (guess who is paying for the military providing disaster relief in Japan). And we haven't even accounted for the massive economic costs of a fukushima-like incident, or, the long term storage costs which will in all likelihood again be up to the taxpayer to finance.

Nuclear power is a failed technology that only survives because corruption has provided laws that privatize gains while socializing losses.
posted by patrick54 at 12:53 AM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Twang writes "At least when that monument to hubris the Titanic sank, it stayed sunk. "

This is nonsensical. While true in the specific case it begs a conclusion that isn't borne out. We construct ocean going ships much larger than the Titanic today and sometimes sail them in ecologically sensitive areas loaded to the max with environmental disasters. And the Titanic's sister ships the RMS Olympic and the HMHS Britannic sailed for years (1935 (decommissioned) and 1918 (taken out by a mine)) after the sinking of the Titanic.

patrick54 writes "The history of nuclear energy is a history of government subsidies. [...]Nuclear power is a failed technology that only survives because corruption has provided laws that privatize gains while socializing losses."

This certainly applies to many other sources of energy too. Think anyone would be burning coal if they had to: Nuclear has big scary events and coal has constant smaller scale events and humans like to fixate on the strange and accept the familiar.
posted by Mitheral at 1:24 AM on March 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


The history of nuclear energy is a history of government subsidies.

Not to way into the pros and cons of nuclear - though I will say climate change makes lower-emissions power sources far, far more attractive, and if the nuclear industry is to be believed (I'm personally not inclined to believe too much from any power-generating industry; talk about over-promising) it can be fast and competitive to coal sooner than a lot of alternatives - but the history of energy - full stop - is a history of govt subsidy. In fact, lose history. Subsidy is inherent to mass energy, all forms of it, right now, in the past, and in the forseeable future.

This gives a lot of neo-liberals nightmares, I wish they'd just recognise it instead of drafting the most byzantine private-public partnerships they can, and twisting themselves into knots trying to justify why a small cluster of extremely self-interested companies should be left in charge of something they have a long and storied history of fucking up with a regularity that would leave a German train conductor green with envy, and is so crucial to so many voting and tax-paying citizens who have - by and large - demonstrated they are much more keen on govt running it.

Phew, that was a long sentence. Used up a few watts just typing it out.
posted by smoke at 3:33 AM on March 12, 2012


It's not the integrity of the plant that matters the most. It's the integrity of the culture and people who operate it.

No nuclear plant has been designed to withstand the corruption within quasi-privatized governments such as the United States and Japan.

Even the French state-owned Areva has continued to push unsafe technology on Japan in order to protect its export market.

While long-lived radioactive isotopes leave land, food and water in and around Fukushima polluted for generations, at the end of the day, it has still remained all about the dollars.

No amount of engineering will ever overcome public and private interests consistently rating profits over keeping human beings from getting sickened and killed by shoddy nuclear "science".

Given the Chinese government cannot keep its quasi-privatized industries from dumping chemical waste into drinking water, everyone downwind of their future nuclear plants should get ready to evacuate.

Corruption in China over nuclear power is already in full swing:

In July 2011, [four ex-officials] completed an 11-page petition that called for the project to be halted and sent it to the State Council, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Anhui provincial government and the county government. The petition said the population data in application materials related to the Pengze facility was falsified, seismic data was unreliable and gifts were used to bribe villagers during a survey of public opinion...

The county government gave its report to the Anhui Energy Bureau. But several months later, the county government had not received a response. Only when the document was linked to on a microblog, causing widespread concern, did the bureau say the county’s report had been forwarded to National Development and Reform Commission, the nation’s top economic planner. The NDRC has not commented...

China is still determined to develop nuclear power.

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:52 AM on March 12, 2012


http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-06/wind-turbine-prices-dropped-4-in-second-half-of-2011-bnef-says.html
Turbine contracts signed in the second half of 2011 for delivery in 2013 dropped to 910,000 euros ($1.2 million) a megawatt.
..
The “median” new wind farm will be competitive with coal-based power without subsidies by 2016.
posted by Catfry at 4:29 AM on March 12, 2012


China is still determined to develop nuclear power.

Let's hope they do. The alternatives (coal being the most probable) are far scarier.
posted by yoink at 8:58 AM on March 12, 2012


The risks and problems with nuclear power are so high and so systemic that simply building some shiny new plants won't solve anything.

Fortunately we have lots and lots of coal and natural gas. And we're perfectly willing to accept the minor, inconsequential problems that come from using them.
posted by happyroach at 9:06 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The alternatives (coal being the most probable) are far scarier.

We have to stop talking about coal as if it were an actual alternative. It will continue to be just as long as we accept that premise. There are much better alternatives now. We shouldn't need to be constrained in our thinking to the worst choices anymore.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:05 AM on March 12, 2012


Solar is the obvious alternative, no?
posted by No Robots at 10:06 AM on March 12, 2012


The Chinese are taking up Thorium in a big way, spending billions on the Molten Salt technology that was operational in the Oak Ridge National Laboratoryduring the late fiftiesinto the sixties.
Apparently they made a lot of visits there and put a lot of resources into developing this.
lots of info online, here is a recent guardian story:
http://peacenews.org/2012/03/post-fukushima-world-must-embrace-thorium-not-ditch-nuclear-guardian-co-uk/ more here: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/fukushimas-lesson-8216alternative-nuclear-not-8216no-nuclear/13857
good vid here, a TED talk, http://megadgets.info/advanced-energy/can-thorium-end-our-energy-crisis-video/
posted by daveeza at 10:31 AM on March 12, 2012


Short version: the actual increased cancer risks for affected populations will in all likelihood be too small to measure.

Hey yoink, why don't you go live in Fukushima City? It will be pretty easy to get an English-teaching job, and I will help you if you like.

The reality is, although it is easy for MeFites thousands of miles away to say the risks are minimal, it's quite different for people who have to actually live in affected regions. These are people just like you and me, with hopes and dreams for the future just like you and me.

The "experts" say it's safe to live in Fukushima City, as long as you take precautions such as "avoiding foliage" or "periodically living outside the area."

Anyway, to anyone somehow rationalizes that the effects of Fukushima don't matter, please contact me - I will help you get a job in Fukushima, Koriyama, or Nihonmatsu. You can go and live there are drink the water and eat the food.

Hell, I'll get you a job in Chiba, which lost 7000 residents last year (first time in recorded history).

MeMail me. I'll be waiting.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:57 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just read a review of this book that looks interesting and a different take on Fukushima.
KokoRyu I don't doubt that there is a lot of FUD around Japan (and a few question on Askmefi have also reinforced the general feeling of what the hell do I believe?). However there are lots of places on the planet with elevated radiation risks (including the soil and water). The Colorado Plateau has a much higher natural background radiation due to elevation and the natural makeup of the rocks there (most of the uranium mines in the US are located there). However there isn't any increase in cancer among the population that lives there, in fact it is considered a great place to live by many and the location of numerous high priced resort communities. Lots and lots of people spend a lot of time on airplanes where the radiation count is even higher. There is a real problem on the ground in Japan around this but it isn't the end of the world, the health effects from the stress of being a refugee, exposure to the elements and pollution from the giant salt water flood are likely to make the health risk from the radiation lost in the noise. A lot of the most radioactive elements (such as the Iodine that destroys thyroids) released during the meltdown have now decayed to stable elements.

Most of the population panics when they hear about radiation or nuclear power due to secrecy around it, press reports about nuclear proliferation and saturation coverage of bad events leading people to believe that it is far more dangerous and accident prone than it actually is. Just the review of that book i linked above makes a far more eloquent case here than i am capable of.

We still need a very dependable, stable and 24 hour power source to sustain industrial civilization. Solar is great for meeting some needs(mostly residential or isolated off the grid locations), but is not suitable for the base load for industry at all. Out of the technologies we have access to coal can, natural gas can, hydro can and nuclear can. Hydro is pretty much maxed out and has its own environmental displacements, coal is just nasty all the way through its cycle, natural gas still emits lots of CO2 and fracking may not be as benign as first thought (although it still appears much better than coal). Nuclear has the smallest footprint, even with the waste disposal issue. Their really isn't that much waste-we could store all the US waste in a smallish football stadium. Building a containment structure in the middle of Edwards air force base and guarding it with Marines for a few hundred years until it reaches background radiation levels might just be the best answer.
posted by bartonlong at 3:37 PM on March 12, 2012


The Colorado Plateau has a much higher natural background radiation due to elevation and the natural makeup of the rocks there (most of the uranium mines in the US are located there). However there isn't any increase in cancer among the population that lives there, in fact it is considered a great place to live by many and the location of numerous high priced resort communities.

Not according to the downwinders and former uranium miners. The other problem is that you're comparing natural uranium in embedded rock to radioactive byproducts in the topsoil and in animals and milk we eat. Also, there's still a mountain of mine tailings in Moab that is considered toxic to the Colorado river. They'll cap it after they move all 16 million tons of it.

Their really isn't that much waste-we could store all the US waste in a smallish football stadium. Building a containment structure in the middle of Edwards air force base and guarding it with Marines for a few hundred years until it reaches background radiation levels might just be the best answer.

The problem is that nobody wants it. In fact, grassroots organizations have been formed to keep it away almost everywhere, even in Nevada. The waste we have now is currently stored in the manner you suggest, on site and typically unguarded, so the reports go.

Most of the population panics when they hear about radiation or nuclear power due to secrecy around it,

Most of the public is tired of disinformation on the subject, such as found in your post. They might remember they used to assemble troops and nearby families to watch nuclear weapons testing, or that they used to measure feet in x-ray machines in shoe stores, and that they used to irradiate the thymus gland in children as a preventive measure, all the while soothing the public about its necessity and safety, years later to regret it. Only the clueless would believe the fear was always there with the secrecy. People typically learned it about it after the fact.
posted by Brian B. at 5:03 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The challenge with nuclear, besides the fact that at least 5.5 million people in Japan, in Fukushima, Miyagi, southern Iwate, Tochigi, Ibaraki and Chiba, to say nothing of Tokyo-to (which has recorded significant amounts of cesium concentrations in sewage sludge, and in rivers, and Tokyo Bay) who have to live in direct contact with contamination, day in and day out - 5.5 million people is a conservative estimate - is that there is no way whatsoever to dispose of spent fuel, and there doesn't seem to be a way.

While we like to talk about the world of the possible, we all live in reality, and the reality is that nuclear power is dirty and dangerous for the foreseeable future.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:06 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Scientists: Far more cesium released than previously believed

A mind-boggling 40,000 trillion becquerels of radioactive cesium, or twice the amount previously thought, may have spewed from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 11 disaster, scientists say.

Michio Aoyama, a senior researcher at the Meteorological Research Institute, released the finding at a scientific symposium in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Feb. 28.

The figure, which represents about 20 percent of the discharge during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, is twice as large as previous estimates by research institutions both in Japan and overseas.

posted by KokuRyu at 10:31 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Without massive government outlays, future for Fukushima is bleak

An area in Fukushima Prefecture covering some 500 square kilometers currently has airborne radiation readings that exceed 20 millisieverts over the course of a year.

Radiation levels there will continue to be above a few millisieverts per year after 30 years if nothing is done. For this reason, decontamination offers the only hope of bringing down radiation levels to those that existed before the nuclear accident.

posted by KokuRyu at 10:34 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


AlJazeera, March 9, 2012: Fukushima residents report various illnesses
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:12 AM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


How on earth did they dispose of all that debris?
posted by kinnakeet at 10:16 AM on March 13, 2012


AlJazeera, March 9, 2012: Fukushima residents report various illnesses

Jesus.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:06 AM on March 13, 2012


How on earth did they dispose of all that debris?

The debris is not being disposed of at the moment, but has been arranged into massive piles in the disaster zone itself.

It's a huge issue because the affected regions simply do not have the capacity to get rid of the gareki, or debris, but other regions of Japan are opposed to receiving the debris for incineration based on fears that the gareki is contaminated with cesium.

The government has said that there is a comprehensive monitoring process to screen all debris before being shipped out for radioactivity, but opponents claim this process is just ad hoc, and cannot guarantee the safety of the material. As well, there are concerns that radioactive particles will accumulate within incinerators no matter how small the per unit radioactive contamination is. The government counters that these particles will be filtered out of the ash somehow. Local communities counter that such technology doesn't exist.

Then there is the question about whether or not all of the debris in the tsunami zone is contaminated. It seems logical to think that the further north you travel, the less contaminated (if at all) the debris will be. However, significant fallout occurred far to the north of Fukushima and Miyagi, well into the southern half of Iwate.

My wife and I argue about this all the time. I say, (having worked in government) trust the government. She says that the Japanese government, now that Tokyo has been dosed, just wants to make the entire country equally contaminated. I think that's nuts, but there are a lot of Japanese people who simply do not trust the people in charge.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:19 PM on March 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Near Fukushima, a Big 'Guessing Game' Over Long-Term Risks
posted by KokuRyu at 4:22 PM on March 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just to provide an example of how confusing information is, the Asahi, which published most of the doom and gloom articles I linked to above, just published this:

Fukushima contamination is much less extensive than Chernobyl

Soil analysis at 2,200 locations within a 100-kilometer radius of the Fukushima plant since June found that cesium-137 contamination in excess of 1,480,000 becquerels per square meter was significantly less extensive than at Chernobyl. The farthest point, in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, was 32.5 km from the nuclear plant.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology released its findings March 13.

Such high-level contamination was found about 250 km from the Chernobyl plant, about 8 times the maximum reach in the Fukushima case, and was exceeded in large parts of the area lying within a 30-km radius of the Soviet plant. If transposed onto a map of Japan, 250 km would extend to the border between Gunma and Nagano prefectures, ministry officials said.


Presumably because there was no white-hot graphite fire that carried spent fuel elements high into the atmosphere.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:26 PM on March 13, 2012


I had planned on creating a MetaFilter post about this topic, but was beaten to the punch!
posted by KokuRyu at 11:26 PM on March 13, 2012


Radioactive items going deeper into ground
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:43 AM on March 14, 2012


I'd love to see an Xkcd cartoon about people disfigured, sickened and dying from radiation poisoning. Too grim a subject matter for Randall Munroe, I suppose.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:57 AM on March 15, 2012


Research examines how the radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant is being spread into the ocean, lakes and rivers. (49 minute NHK documentary)

Not a particularly cheerful doc.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:02 PM on March 15, 2012


Chain reaction: the (slow) revival of US nuclear power
posted by XMLicious at 8:59 PM on March 17, 2012


Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists; probably a little more accurate than the Economist)
posted by KokuRyu at 8:12 PM on March 21, 2012


Fukushima in review: A complex disaster, a disastrous response (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists; probably a little more accurate than the Economist)

Certainly interesting to read but.. Very strange report.

My reading is that they blame Kan (and to some extent Edano), and a few hapless workers, while praising the site manager(s). They offer little criticism of the TEPCo upper management. But it was the TEPCo upper management who threatened to withdraw from the site, provoking Kan into all the bad influence they attribute to him...

Maybe I haven't thought about it enough, but to me it just comes off as industry apologia. Something like: Human error plus government interference caused problems, but good management and a little luck brought us through. Nuclear power still perfectly fine.
posted by Chuckles at 10:18 PM on March 21, 2012


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