The Big Nuclear Debate

A tangential update to my previous, and much more relevant, post on the current shape of things in Japan

As any sane person would point out, now certainly isn’t the time to have a wide-scale debate about civil nuclear policies. Decade-long policies should not be decided in the middle of a day-to-day disaster…

Unfortunately, that is not how some people see it: the debate is already happening. I have no particular animosity against the die-hard anti-nuclear types1 who have seized on the occasion for their own political purpose: I know they sincerely mean well2. But I do certainly find it distasteful when any side uses the emotion generated by such a tragedy to advance points of questionable relevance. It’s also a bit insulting when reports of anti-nuclear demonstrations trump reports on actual earthquake/tsunami-related fatalities on the front page of German newspapers (yes, I am looking in your direction, Spiegel).

Now, since we are having that debate. Allow me to raise one single point, based on very easily verifiable facts:

Nuclear reactors like the ones currently in trouble at Fukushima Dai-ichi and Dai-ni are BWR/3 and BWR/4: third and fourth iterations within the larger class of Boiling Water reactor models, using a containment model known as Mark-1. These designs are a little less than 50 (fifty) year old. Think it over for a second: these reactors were built on a grand total of 15 years of experience in civil nuclear engineering. This is a ridiculously short time to develop any sort of engineering knowledge, let alone one based around atomic fission. This is barely the time we spend nowadays on building one power plant from pre-existing plans.

Quite expectedly for such dated technologies, the Mark-1 containment model has been made obsolete many times over. Recent BWRs use significantly improved Mark-2 or Mark-3 containment systems. Newer models such as the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor use even more advanced containment designs3. So far, all serious nuclear accidents in history have involved older containment models. Some of the newer models currently operating all over Japan have been doing fine through numerous earthquakes, including the last one.

OK. Now, the million-becquerel question: if Mark-1 containment models suck so much and if there’s been so many cool new advances in safety ever since, how come any of these antiquated models are still running and haven’t long been replaced?

Part of the answer is of course the universal instinct of governments, the world over, to cut corners and pinch yens on whatever doesn’t have enough immediate populist appeal. Incidentally a very reasonable argument against trusting anybody in such a critical area as commercial atom-tingling.

But a much larger, and equally universal, reason for the lack of a sensible upgrade policy everywhere is, surprisingly enough, anti-nuclear pressure. Provocative as this may sound, it is actually quite obvious: upgrading an outdated reactor model usually means decommissioning it entirely and building a new one next to it. Problems are:
1) few countries can afford to turn down a reactor (just look at how it’s working out for Japan at the moment) before a new one is ready to replace it.
2) while politicians are generally OK dealing with longstanding background opposition against existing installations, few are ready to battle it out for what people perceive as a new nuclear power plant. Promising you will turn out the old one just after, hardly helps (and after all, who can blame a certain circumspection toward elected officials’ promises).

And there you have it: because there are arguably few other realistic alternatives at the moment (I’ll grant you this is a much wider debate) and because it is just much easier for politicians to appease all sides by relying on old nuclear plants but pledging to abstain from new construction, the world is riddled with highly dangerous, antiquated nuclear power plants, leading to disasters that could probably be avoided in many ways.

Feel free to have an opinion on the larger debate on energy (my position is probably more nuanced than what you may think from the above), but please don’t confuse the facts when you do.

  1. see: Germany and other countries with similarly contentious domestic policies on nuclear energy and strong anti-nuclear groups. []
  2. Keeping in mind that meaning well and being sincere has never meant you can’t be an irrational loon, far from it. []
  3. Just to put things into perspective: Chernobyl, had no containment dome whatsoever. And very little contingency plan to speak of altogether. Next time you hear a journalist putting the two on similar grounds, dip them in a bath of radioactive cesium on my behalf. []

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