25 June 2011

Propaganda Yes, Safety No

The more we learn about the incompetence of Japanese nuclear power operators the more discouraging it gets. This fascinating article in the New York Times reveals some astonishing facts about how much Japanese government and industry invested in brainwashing the public about the absolute safety of nuclear power generation. Of course nuclear power is very safe (see this earlier post for a comparison with coal, and this post for an overall review of the cost of the Fukushima disaster). But blind belief that "nothing can go wrong" has made the current Fukushima disaster much worse.
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This year, 2011, the Japanese government is spending $12 million on propaganda programs promoting the absolute safety of nuclear power generation, and the nuclear industry is propably spending as much again (see NYT article). Yet both the industry and government resisted for decades spending on robot technology that could be helpful in the case of a disaster like Fukushima, and on plant upgrades and safety measures that could have minimized the damage at Fukushima. In convincing the Japanese public that nuclear power generation was absolutely safe, the industry convinced itself that it didn't have to use the latest safety improvements. They saved a few yen and ran unnecessary risks, and now it is costing them.

Although the full analysis of the cost-cutting and other safety compromises at Fukushima (and, of course, at other Japanese nuclear power plants) is yet to be completed, there are several obvious issues:
  • Although told that a big tsunami was possible, TEPCO, Fukushima Number One's operator, decided not to build a tsunami wall robust enough to prevent damage from a big one. Many other nuclear power plants in Japan still face this same vulnerability.
  • Obviously TEPCO hadn't felt it necessary to invest in more disaster-resistant backup power supplies.
  • Flimsy ducting for venting hydrogen was damaged early in the accident, letting hydrogen into the reactor containment building spaces where it later exploded, adding significantly to the damage and the difficulty of managing the disaster. Nuclear plants elsewhere recognized this vulnerability and built more robust hydrogen stacks.
  • Japan had no robots suitable for use in damaged nuclear power plants, though such robots had been found useful at Chernoble and Three Mile Island, and were manufactured in other countries in anticipation of employment in nuclear accidents.
  • TEPCO didn't have enough radiation badges for the workers who were rushed to the site to try to deal with the disaster, or proper training or procedures for working in high-radiation conditions. It wasn't able to track the workers or their radiation exposure. It blames this on its contractors and subcontractors. (See Mainichi Daily News and this Reuters story.)
The hundreds of millions the Japanese government and nuclear industry have spent over the years to convince the public that nuclear power was "absolutely safe" might, if spent on safety upgrades, training, and preparation, have actually made it more safe. It could have prevented the Fukushima disaster, which is undermining the credibility of industry and government and causing the public to question its blind support of nuclear power generation and its cozy regulation. These continuing revelations of joint incompetence could have long-term political repercussions in Japan.

01 June 2011

Nuclear Power Moves East

Nuclear power generation is being phased out and new plants delayed or cancelled in several western countries, even as new plants are planned and built in the East.

The Decline of Nuclear in the West

Photo of Philippsburg nuclear power station in Germany
Kernkraftwerk Philippsburg
The recent decision by the German government to plan for the closure of  Germany's remaining operating nuclear power generation facilities by 2022 (see BBC article) is the latest in a European trend. Switzerland had previously announced that it would build no new nuclear power plants, but that its existing plants would be allowed to run for their currently planned lives (Reuters story).  Plans to build nuclear plants in Italy have been put on hold (see Guardian article). [Update 14 June 2011--Italians voted overwhelmingly in a referendum not to construct any nuclear plants for the foreseeable future--See Guardian story.]

In the United States it is economically infeasible to build new nuclear power plants, although some are in various stages of planning and permitting and one is under construction (for which ground was broken in 1973). The recent decline in the price of natural gas has been a major factor, making natural-gas-fired plants much more financially attractive than nuclear ones. Public concerns about nuclear power also make it difficult, costly, and time consuming to get permits for construction. And without substantial government loan guarantees, liability limits, and other subsidies (more difficult in this deficit-cutting age?) no plants can be built in the U.S.

The attitude in Japan toward nuclear power generation is becoming more similar to that in the West, only perhaps more so. In the '70s Japan faced a situation like that of France (high engineering skills but few domestic sources of energy) and made a similar commitment to nuclear generation. Nuclear accounts for 70% of Japan's power generation (before the Fukushima-related shutdowns). (In France it is close to 80%.) The revelations of sloppy management at TEPCO and cozy regulation by the government, plus first-hand experience of the consequences of that management and policy style, may turn Japanese voters against continued unquestioning support for nuclear power generation. [Continuing saga: see updates below.]

France remains committed to nuclear power generation, but it already has more plants than it needs for domestic consumption. Some are shut down on week ends for lack of demand (according to this article). In most places nuclear provides base-load power, with plants running continuously at optimum efficiency and peak demand above that baseline satisfied by other energy sources such as natural gas. But France has built so much nuclear capacity that it exceeds base demand. France exports a lot of electricity (it is the nation's fourth largest export product).

The Rise of Nuclear in the East

Both China and India have plans to greatly increase the generation of electricity from nuclear power.

Although China has called for a review of nuclear plant safety in the light of Fukushima, it remains committed to substantial expansion of nuclear power generation capacity (See Huffington Post item from AP). China plans to increase the fraction of its electricity it gets from nuclear power from about 1% to roughly 6% by 2020. This will require building new capacity greater than that of France today. (Wikipedia article)

All of China's nuclear power program and the operation of its nuclear plants is in the hands of state-owned "central enterprises". The extreme amount of capacity China is building over the next decade will require very rapid expansion of its nuclear engineering industry, with potential for corruption and corner-cutting. Since China has demonstrated that it cannot even build schools that withstand expected seismic risks, one might be concerned about the long-term safety of its nuclear power generation facilities. On the other hand, China will develop a major nuclear power engineering industry with potential to play a major role world wide.

India has plans to substantially increase its nuclear generation capacity, from about 4.8 GW installed capacity to 20 GW or more by 2020 (compared to China's plan for 70-80 GW). Prime Minister Singh has recently said that India will continue with its nuclear expansion (Hindustan Times article).

Other Mideast and Asian nations are developing nuclear electric power generation facilities. These include Iran, of course, as well as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. (See this paper.)

The Role of Government

Much of the decline in the attractiveness of nuclear power generation in Europe is due to the undeniable political cost of supporting it, at least outside France. Germany's abrupt turnaround from extending the lives of its old nuclear plants to shutting them completely can be credited to the success of Green political parties winning local elections on the issue. Voters in Germany don't like nuclear and can be expected to punish parties that back it. The same trend is seen in several other European countries.

It is also notable that wherever private companies are expected to provide the investment and take the financial risk of building and operating nuclear power plants, such plants are not being built. The business costs of problems at nuclear plants is the primary reason that nuclear power generation will grow only where government effectively absorbs those risks.

In France the main operator of the nation's nuclear plants is EDF, majority owned by the French state. The state, and the taxpayer, explicitly accept most of the financial risk of building and operating nuclear power plants in France. So far the French taxpayer seems to accept this arrangement. Elsewhere in the West voters are turning against backing such programs.

The government of the Peoples Republic of China has no such problem. Because China's nuclear power industry is state owned, the concerns about financial risks associated with nuclear power do not exist. Therefore the drive to preserve the firm and its assets by avoiding or managing those risks is also absent. (On the other hand, some Chinese managers and regulators who have been convicted of harming the public have been executed, a fate western managers don't have to worry about.)

All of India's nuclear power operations are owned by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, a government-owned public sector undertaking. Thus the taxpayers of India, rather than any private investors, take the financial risks related to problems with nuclear power generation. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010 provides limits on the liability exposure of plant operators and the government, which are lower than those in many other countries (some details here). The Act tries to shift some of the liability to suppliers of nuclear technology, such as the makers of nuclear reactors. It is unclear that reactor manufacturers will be willing to accept this liability.

It is my contention that nuclear power will never be as safe as it can be (which is pretty safe) unless those who build and operate nuclear plants have to accept the financial liability for anything that goes wrong. The fact that the government is accepting, and in effect limiting, that liability in India and China may partly explain the continuing construction of nuclear plants in the East.

Impact of Fukushima

After the disaster at Fukushima I (see Wikipedia article), all nuclear authorities were quick to assert that all plants under their jurisdiction were earthquake proof and that a similar problem couldn't happen to them (see previous post). (Of course the Japanese authorities said the same up until 11 March 2011.) Nonetheless they have all promised or initiated reviews of the design and operation of their plants in light of the experiences at Fukushima.

The greatest impact of Fukushima may be on policies toward storage of spent fuel. The loss of coolant to spent fuel storage pools at Fukushima has been a major part of the disaster. Such storage pools are not within containment structures like the reactors themselves. Nearly every nuclear plant in the world has spent fuel rod storage on site, and significant investments may be required to be sure such storage is safe even in the case of possible problems at the plants, including earthquakes, sabotage, operator error, power loss, backup power loss, etc..

Although the Fukushima disaster has, paradoxically, demonstrated that even cataclysm at a nuclear plant presents little threat to workers and the public, compared to coal, it has made people around the world less willing to accept the risks and worries associated with nuclear power generation.

And of course the horrendous cost to the plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, and to the Japanese taxpayer and electricity customer, has caught the attention of all involved in the nuclear power industry. TEPCO may survive, being judged too important to fail by the Japanese government (the holders of its debt have considerable political clout), but its investors and maybe even its bondholders may be forced to take a haircut. (See previous posts here and here.)

The Future of Nuclear

Until Chinese and Indian voters begin to respond to environmental concerns more like German ones, nuclear power generation will expand in the East. And in India and China people have much more immediate environmental concerns, such as clean water, sewage treatment, heavy air pollution, particulates and the like, which have been taken care of (to a degree) in the West. Perhaps squeamishness about nuclear power generation is a luxury they will come to share in time.

On the other hand, attitudes toward nuclear power could change in the West, if no new disasters like Fukushima occur for many years and the environmental and health costs of coal-fired power generation become more widely appreciated.

Update 2012-05-13 1630UTC: Nice chart of where nuclear plants are under construction or planned here. It says Russia is building and planning more than India. Of course this chart shows Japan building 3 and planning 10 more, so it may be a little out of date.

Update 2012-09-14 1615UTC: Japanese government announces policy to phase out nuclear by building no new plants and limiting the lifetime of existing plants, leading to zero nuclear generation by 2030s. See Reuters item. Decisions still have to be made on restarting existing plants, and this will remain a political issues for Japan.
Further Update 2012-09-19 1530UTC: Japanese Cabinet refuses to endorse nuclear phaseout. See Guardian item.

Photo by Lothar Neumann, Gernsbach, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons