By John Karoly
Chicago, IL, USA
As the Japanese are preparing for an arduous, decades-long task of burying their nuclear power plants at Fukushima, a reevaluation of existing nuclear power plants is being conducted in almost every country. Plans for construction of new ones are being delayed, probably indefinitely.
This accident occurred during a renaissance of nuclear power plant construction. It was recognized that nuclear fission provides pollution-free power, and since the last accident occurred many years ago in a careless communist country (Ukraine SSR), the probability of one occurring in a developed country was deemed to be extremely low. Nature and Tokyo Electric Power were unkind to us. The name “Fukushima” will become part of our vocabulary, standing for horrible accidents in nuclear power. The site of these “to be buried” power plants and their surroundings will probably not be suitable for human habitation for centuries. There is no quick fix for this accident; Fukushima will stand as a grave marker of this once important technology and power source.
The history of nuclear power began when Germany started to realize it would lose the Second World War. At that time, the Nazi propaganda machine went into high gear talking about a secret weapon that could reverse the course of the war. Nobody knew what the Nazi’s were talking about except a few physicists, a number of who were in the US and who were refugees from Germany, Hungary and Italy. These scientists had only an inexact idea of the tremendous power that could be generated by a nuclear chain reaction, but they were very concerned that Germany was on its way to building a bomb. They wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking the United States to sponsor an urgent project to develop a nuclear bomb and they persuaded Albert Einstein to sign the letter. Ultimately, the Manhattan Project was born…the atomic bomb developed…and dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The stated purpose was to end the war and save American lives by not continuing to fight the Japanese on their homeland. And so, the nuclear age commenced. Where it will end is still one of the biggest unknowns confronting mankind. An atomic clock was established at the University of Chicago to countdown to the inevitable nuclear war. At last report, it was hovering at a few minutes to midnight.
To mitigate the harm of nuclear weapons, a program was started for the “peaceful use of the atom” and designs for nuclear power plants were born. This was an exciting development because a nuclear power plant was not a bomb. While it cannot have a nuclear explosion, it can decompose water when it runs out of control and cause hydrogen explosions, melt the fuel rods and cause release of very damaging radiation into the environment - all of which is assumed to be happening at Fukushima.
With energy from the atom calculated to be plentiful, experts fantasized that one day it would be too expensive to build meters to measure household electric consumption. Everybody would be supplied with virtually unlimited electricity, practically free-of-charge. This dream lasted until the first generation of nuclear power plants were built. It was quickly discovered that while the costs of running the plant were low, the costs to construct them were very high. But with Government guarantees, many plants were nevertheless built throughout the world. These were wonderful plants that functioned practically flawlessly, with the exception of the incident at Three Mile Island (human error) and Chernobyl.
The world still has many first generation nuclear power plants in operation that were designed in the 1950s and 60s. The Fukushima plants were brought into service in the early 1970s and were based on first generation designs. Replacement of these old plants with modern designs would almost certainly have allowed them to survive both the earthquake and the tsunami and would have contained the radiation because current designs are based on containment of nuclear fuel in “balls” and do not use water for reactor cooling.
With Fukushima, however, it is unlikely we will ever have a chance to prove this and the world will have lost an important energy source that will be hard to replace.
John Karoly and the company he founded was the supplier of Radioactive Treatment systems to nuclear power plants around the world, including the plants at Fukushima.