Nuclear power has always been a controversial technology, and recent events have lead many in the world to question whether or not we should continue to use the technology for power generation. The previous nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are relatively minor incidents compared to the ongoing horrific disaster that is Fukushima, which threatens to disrupt significant parts of Japan, and could potentially threaten its integrity and sovereignty if the disaster footprint extends.
This disaster has been complicated by the poor response, bad decisions, and incompetent handling of the situation in the escalation to crisis and the ongoing mitigation effort. Decisions made to save money are now jeopardizing the health and safety of millions of people and could cause the end of the Alaska salmon fisheries, among other critical Pacific fisheries.
The chain of bad decisions began with the choice to build the facility closer to the shore at a location excavated to make it level (bringing it closer to groundwater) to save money, and extend to the almost comical (if it weren’t terrifyingly serious) mistakes in the cleanup effort from bad wastewater tank construction to workers accidentally shutting off major systems. This impression of indifference and incompetence damages the image of nuclear power as a viable energy source going forward.
Frankly, the world needs a corny-science-fiction-movie-level effort to mitigate and contain the disaster, as the currently situation is untenable and can very easily result in a greater problem. The current operation to remove 400 tons of highly irradiated spent fuel rods beneath the plant’s damaged Reactor No. 4 could result in the material being spilled, creating an even larger disaster. If the cleanup effort on the facility cannot secure the rods, the disaster exclusion zone may need to be extended to a couple of hundred kilometers, a distance that threatens Tokyo with evacuation.
Nuclear power can be a useful, safe source of energy. Done properly, fuel–rod management and radioactive material containment can be safe. However, if the nuclear industry does nothing to learn from the lessons of Fukushima not only would we be poorly served as an industry, but we will also create the potential for even greater disasters. The Indian Point nuclear plant 50 miles north of NYC has three times the fuel material at Fukushima, for example. Only by developing and building plants with secure and safe on-site semi-permanent storage and robust and redundant safety systems can we in good faith continue to develop and deploy nuclear power.