The crisis in Japan has dominated the media over the past week. With the earthquake and tsunami over, many bloggers turned their attention the unfolding disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi and its implications for the future of nuclear energy.
It’s not Chernobyl
It wasn’t long before some websites were quoting anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott: “If both reactors blow then the whole of the Northern Hemisphere may be affected,” she told Independent Australia. But at the East Asia Forum, Harvard University’s Matthew Bunn assures readers that : "As bad as it is, Japan’s nuclear accident is dramatically less catastrophic than Chernobyl." He explains:
… there is no real prospect of a runaway chain reaction as occurred at Chernobyl. Instead, what has happened is the melting of fuel in reactor cores, leading to the release of a very modest amount of cesium and other fission products.
And this seems to be the consensus among nuclear experts. When the ABC’s Norman Hermant asked Leonid Bolshov of the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences what he thought about comparisons to Chernobyl, he said "I think it’s misinformation."
In the days following the earthquake, a number of bloggers posted explanations of what was happening at the Japanese nuclear plant. At Larvatus Prodeo Robert Merkel posted a summary. "I probably have made some mistakes", he wrote, "I’m not a nuclear engineer. But I’ve been reading stuff by nuclear engineers, which is more than most of the people writing about this stuff…"
A popular summary was written by MIT’s Josef Oehmen. According to Oehmen, the summary started as an email sent to family and friends. But after it was posted by Jason at Morgsatlarge, it went viral. Oehmen writes:
I am a mechanical engineer and research scientist at MIT. I am not a nuclear engineer or scientist, or affiliated with Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, so please feel free to question my competence.
Students at MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) are now maintaining a blog with information about the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and related issues.
What about California?
Not surprisingly, some California residents are worried about their nuclear reactors. Both the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants are built by the sea near fault lines. On Thursday the Los Angeles Times reported that the Diablo Canyon plant in San Luis Obispo had "San Luis Obispo operated for a year and a half with some emergency systems disabled".
Plant operators are assuring the public that their reactors are safe. A spokesperson for Southern California Edison says that San Onofre is built to withstand a magnitude 7.0 earthquake and has a 25 foot high tsunami wall. But at Boing Boing, Xeni Jardin writes:
Well, that’s nice. But this Southern California resident remains concerned: the earthquake that devastated Japan last Friday, throwing various nuclear power plants into crisis and sparking worldwide fears of a major nuke accident, was a 9.0 "great quake." And the tsunami that soon followed? That was 33 feet high.
A nuclear renaissance?
Concern about climate change persuaded some policy makers and commentators to look again at nuclear power. In January this year Dan Yurman posted the 37th Carnival of Nuclear Energy blogs, a round-up of blog posts heralding the nuclear renaissance. Linking to a post on Rod Adams’ Atomic Insights blog, Yurman wrote:
Forty-year-old nuclear plants with paid off mortgages can operate so cheaply that they could sell their output using an "all you can eat" pricing model similar to the ones used by cable television or internet service providers.
Recent events may have dampened enthusiasm for ageing nuclear power plants.
At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin posts an opinion piece he wrote for the Australian Financial Review. Quiggin argues that even without the incident in Japan, the high cost of nuclear power made it a marginal proposition:
… the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. Fears about safety have meant that nuclear power plants have been held to much higher safety standards than alternatives like coal, which routinely spew pollutants of all kinds into the atmosphere.
More important than these fears, however, is the fear and ignorance displayed by those who have obstructed the most important single factor needed for nuclear power to become viable – a price on emissions of carbon dioxide.
The good old days
In February running enthusiast Thomas Armbruster wrote a post about the Georgia Reactor Run, a 100 mile endurance trail race through the Dawsonville Wildlife Management Area. It turns out there’s some history on the trail:
… the Dawsonville Wildlife Management Area was once known as the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory. It was a nuclear test site in which the US government was researching and trying to develop a nuclear powered aircraft.
During the 1950s the US air force had plans for a nuclear powered bomber. As this video shows, they even got as far as putting a working nuclear reactor in the air. But despite spending billion dollars, neither the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program (ANP) or the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project ever managed to get a nuclear reactor to power an aircraft.
Some of the options the engineers considered might seem alarming today. For example, one of the designs the Department of Defense was planning to test was a ‘direct cycle’ engine. According to a 1963 report:
In the direct cycle, air enters through the compressor, is forced into the reactor, and is heated by the fuel elements. After passing through the turbine, where energy. is extracted to drive the compressor, the heated air is expelled at high velocity through the exhaust nozzle.
President Kennedy terminated the program.