Nuclear Fearmongering

In light of the nuclear power plant problems in Japan, U.S. and European liberals have had a conniption and are calling for an end to nuclear power in America.

Already the battlelines are being drawn. On Saturday, some 50,000 anti-nuclear protesters formed a 27-mile human chain from Germany’s Neckarwestheim nuclear power plant to the city of Stuttgart to protest against its government’s plans to extend the life of the country’s reactors. Green politicians in pro-nuclear France urged an end to its dependence on the atom, and Ed Markey, a leading Democratic US Congressman, called for a moratorium on building new reactors in seismically active areas.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel, after holding a meeting of the German cabinet on the issue, reaffirmed her confidence in the safety of nuclear power. The leader of Silvio Berlusconi’s party said that Italy would stick with plans to build new reactors. And a spokesman for US Senator Lisa Murkowski said it would be “poor form for anyone to criticise the nuclear industry, or pronounce the end of nuclear power, because of a natural disaster that has been a national tragedy for the Japanese people”.

Let’s hope that world leaders continue to support nuclear power. Anti-nuclear zealots like Ed Markey and his environmentalist ilk are morons.  Besides, predictions that Japan could experience a Chernobyl-like event are overblown, says William Tucker:

Even while thousands of people are reported dead or missing, whole neighborhoods lie in ruins, and gas and oil fires rage out of control, press coverage of the Japanese earthquake has quickly settled on the troubles at two nuclear reactors as the center of the catastrophe.

Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), a longtime opponent of nuclear power, has warned of “another Chernobyl” and predicted “the same thing could happen here.” In response, he has called for an immediate suspension of licensing procedures for the Westinghouse AP1000, a “Generation III” reactor that has been laboring through design review at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for seven years.

Before we respond with such panic, though, it would be useful to review exactly what is happening in Japan and what we have to fear from it.

Early speculation was that in a case like this the fuel might continue melting right through the steel and perhaps even through the concrete containment structure—the so-called China syndrome, where the fuel would melt all the way to China. But Three Mile Island proved this doesn’t happen. The melted fuel rods simply aren’t hot enough to melt steel or concrete.

The decay heat must still be absorbed, however, and as a last-ditch effort the emergency core cooling system can be activated to flood the entire containment structure with water. This will do considerable damage to the reactor but will prevent any further steam releases. The Japanese have now reportedly done this using seawater in at least two of the troubled reactors. These reactors will never be restarted.

None of this amounts to “another Chernobyl.” The Chernobyl reactor had two crucial design flaws. First, it used graphite (carbon) instead of water to “moderate” the neutrons, which makes possible the nuclear reaction. The graphite caught fire in April 1986 and burned for four days. Water does not catch fire.

Second, Chernobyl had no containment structure. When the graphite caught fire, it spouted a plume of radioactive smoke that spread across the globe. A containment structure would have both smothered the fire and contained the radioactivity.

If a meltdown does occur in Japan, it will be a disaster for the Tokyo Electric Power Company but not for the general public. Whatever steam releases occur will have a negligible impact. Researchers have spent 30 years trying to find health effects from the steam releases at Three Mile Island and have come up with nothing. With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor.

See? Nothing to fear.  Did I mention that Ed Markey is a moron?


1 Comment

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One response to “Nuclear Fearmongering

  1. By the way, when i say “nothing to fear,” I’m oversimplifying the situation. Radiation from the Japanese nuclear plant could cause some major problems, but comparisons to Chernobyl, for instance, are inappropriate.