Nuclear expert explains that Japan tragedy is not out of the ordinary

March 28, 2011

Wordview and Kate Dries

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(Getty Images/Thomas Niedermueller)
Steam rises from a cooling tower at a nuclear power plant.

A leading nuclear expert says that the current crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant isn’t as rare as some might believe. 

“Our experience with nuclear power is that there is an accident every 10 to 20 years,” said Allison Macfarlane, Professor of Environmental Science at George Mason University, and chair of the Science and Security Board of the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”. Macfarlane appeared on WBEZ’s Worldview on Monday as part of its week-long series examining the effect the Japanese disaster may have on the future of the nuclear power industry in developed and developing nations.

“This may be the price we pay for nuclear power,” she admitted. “I’m not sure.” Macfarlane emphasized that every disaster usually stems from a different issue, and that the “society has to decide that this is a risk they want to take.”

Environmental Factors

Several earthquake-prone nations have shown an interest in developing nuclear energy in recent years, including Bangladesh, Vietnam and Indonesia. In Indonesia, non-governmental groups have pressured the leaders to take this environmental concern seriously. Turkey also has shown substantial interest in developing nuclear power plants, despite the fact that there are faults active relatively near several of the potential plant sites. “One would hope that they’d think twice, but it’s not clear that they will,” Macfarlane cautioned.

Concerns Surrounding Nuclear Proliferation

Though 30 countries worldwide rely on nuclear power, even research reactors contain the building blocks to support that endeavor. According to Macfarlane, that’s one of the reasons the U.S. and the European Union are suspicious of Iran’s desire to build enrichment facilities.  Such facilities have the potential to be turned into weapons of mass destruction. “In general, the same materials that power nuclear power plants, power nuclear bombs - and that’s the fundamental problem here,” said Macfarlane.

Of the 60 nations pursuing nuclear power, however, only one has actually made advances towards creating nuclear energy: the United Arab Emirates. The projections the UAE has made about their future energy needs indicate that they see their electricity requirements increasing rapidly in the future. Though they have a great deal of natural gas and oil, UAE leaders are more interested in selling these resources, and using those profits to make nuclear energy for their own use (and profit as well). This plan won’t necessarily save money; it will cost 20 billion dollars to build four plants, to be completed between 2017 and 2020. Additionally, the UAE is planning on importing much of their nuclear expertise, largely from a South Korean manufacturer, which will help to form a new training program for their own scientists.

Nation Size

Nuclear power plants are often detrimental because of their size, because they come in a one-size-fits-all model, which Macfarlane dubbed as “extra-large.” Nations like Jordan, which has a very small electric grid, are interested in developing nuclear power, but would be much better suited for smaller reactors.

But for population-heavy countries, like China and India, the current size of nuclear plants seems to be beneficial. Though both nations have stated that they plan to do safety reviews of their existing plants, they have ambitious plans to develop nuclear energy no matter what. Work on pebble bed reactors, which are supposedly more passively safe than the light water reactors used in the U.S., has increased, but Macfarlane noted that they are only “a little safer” than traditional reactors.

Though China has become increasingly aware of the dangers of producing so much carbon dioxide in their energy creation process, compared to the number of coal power plants in China, 100 nuclear power plants is very little:

“If you don’t have a lot of natural resources, and you anticipate a lot of growth, nuclear power becomes more attractive,” explained Macfarlane. Nuclear power has been a viable energy option for over 50 years, but the technology required to produce it remains rare and highly coveted. Macfarlane says that that’s part of its allure. “[It] provides a sense of modernity, of finally joining the 21st century”, she points out.