Editor’s Letter: After Japan

In the first moments after the earthquake, it appears that reactors across Japan successfully saw control rods inserted into their cores. Here the technology worked well. It was after the reactors came offline that systems began to fail.

The primary culprits seem to be electromechanical in nature: the pumps, valves and related controls that have been at the core of all steam power generation units for well over 100 years and that serve as the heart of such units, pumping fluid to control, distribute and regulate heat. Shaken by one of recorded history’s most powerful earthquakes and battered by a tsunami, these systems–along with various backup and fail-safe systems–failed, precipitating Japan’s nuclear crisis.

The scenario that began unfolding March 11 previously had seemed so unlikely. But Japan itself is the product of tectonic action and the majority of the country’s nuclear power plants line its coasts. In 2007, the world’s largest nuclear power plant–the seven-unit Kashiwazaki-Kariwa station–suffered minor earthquake damage and was offline for 22 months as operators and regulators scrutinized the causes and extent of the damage. The world’s nuclear industry dodged a bullet in 2007. It was not nearly so lucky in 2011.

Headlines and live video from Japan make it easy to write off nuclear power. But in the U.S. the technology has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround following the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The industry created the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations following that accident to improve and standardize training and operations across the nation’s 104 operating nuclear units. Since then, nuclear power has been a consistently reliable–and, with few exceptions–safe electricity generator.

And yet I return to comments made to me last year by two MIT-educated engineers both of whom are working to develop new processes to manufacture photovoltaic cells. Emanuel Sachs and Frank van Mierlo clearly have skin in the game to ensure the success of their solar energy-focused company, 1366 Technologies. But in an interview with them as the Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf of Mexico was unfolding, they spoke of the inherent risk of complex technology. Systems fail, bad things happen all the time. With some technology–and here they spoke of nuclear power and not the oil spill in the Gulf–the consequences of failure can be enormous. We are relearning that lesson from Japan.

Having said that, we must acknowledge that the nuclear industry–whose technology today is, after all, largely Japanese technology–saw the flaws in overly complicated systems and designed Generation III+ power plants to incorporate safety systems that rely far less on electromechanical devices when something goes terribly wrong.

In light of Japan’s crisis the global nuclear industry needs to consider the worst possible scenarios and then design and build with those consequences in mind, plus an additional measure of safety. Whether or not new nuclear power plants are even insurable remains to be seen; risk calculations no doubt are being scrutinized by insurance underwriters who have been shaken–literally–by quakes in Chile, New Zealand and now Japan.

Nuclear power remains among the world’s best sources of baseload, largely emission-free electricity. It can and should continue to play a major role in efforts to provide reliable and virtually carbon-free power. In the final analysis, a future that contemplates nuclear as a major source of baseload generation complemented by small-scale and geographically dispersed renewables still holds much promise for electric power generation.

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