How Fukushima Made Me a Nukie

The following is a transcript of a speech I delivered to my Toastmasters club on 2 March 2017. It occurred to me a few days ago that all nuclear power facilities in the United States should have their own internal Toastmasters clubs, so that professionals can learn and practice communications and public speaking skills.

Nearly six years ago, Japan was plunged into chaos. March 11, 2011. I was at a web-development conference in Chicago, staying with my brother-in-law’s family, when the news broke.

At 2:46 in the afternoon in Japan, the deep-ocean fault-line off the east coast of Tohoku gave way, causing a mind-boggling 9.3 magnitude earthquake. Buildings and infrastructure were destroyed, and thousands of people killed.

No sooner had the Japanese people started crawling out from the rubble, when a massive tsunami struck the coast. The tidal wave was 50 feet high or more, in some places. The videos of the flood waters roaring inland, taken by remarkably calm people on rooftops, are nothing short of surreal. Thousands more died in the flood waters, which then receded with nearly as much force as they had struck with.

The final death toll from the quake and tsunami was nearly 20,000.

Factories were devastated, refineries caught fire, and, of course, there was a major accident at a nuclear power plant.

Normally, I would have gotten my hair on fire and started posting on Facebook about how awful and unsafe nuclear power is, as did most of my politically like-minded friends. This time, I decided to be more careful about my reaction. A friend had shared a link to a website called Brave New Climate, written by Austrailian blogger, Barry Brook. Barry was doing ongoing coverage of the situation, and I became riveted. And I learned some things.

The Fukushima Dai’ichi generating station, and every other nuclear reactor in Japan, immediately went into automatic shutdown moments after the first rumblings of the quake were detected, exactly as designed. Although external power was lost at several stations in the areas with the most damage, on-site backup generators fired up and began supplying the electrical power needed to run the pumps that keep the reactors cool, so as to prevent meltdown.

(To digress for a moment: As I noted, the reactors had all safely and immediately gone into shut down, thus stopping the fission chain reaction. However, that does not mean they stop generating heat. Radioactive materials, especially nuclear fuel, continue to experience radioactive decay even after they are no longer fissioning. This decay releases a great deal of heat, which must be dissipated, to prevent the fuel assemblies from melting.)

There was one little problem at Fukushima Dai’ichi — the backup generators had foolishly been placed in the basements of the reactor containment buildings. Although the plant, like all others, withstood the quake and the initial tsunami, the backup generators soon became flooded and inoperable, leaving three of the operating reactors with no ability to provide cooling to their cores.

Water boiled off, and the tops of the cores became exposed. Hydrogen was generated by the radioactive decay and reaction of the fuel rod cladding with water. It began to accumulate in the upper levels of the containment buildings. The plant operator begged the Japanese government officials to be allowed to vent this hydrogen from the buildings before the situation became dangerous. The government insisted that mass evacuations be completed before venting the buildings, even though the wind was blowing out to sea and not placing anyone in danger. Eventually, enough hydrogen built up in the buildings that they exploded. You may have seen the videos of these buildings blowing up. What many do not realize is that these were NOT nuclear explosions. The reactors themselves did not blow up.

However, the explosions did cause further damage to the facility, making it even more difficult to move portable backup generators onto the scene. Eventually the debris was able to be cleared, but by then it was too late to save the reactor cores. Three reactors melted down, and there is a long-term and very expensive process underway to clean up and decommission the power plant.

There are several things to note, though:

•       Just northward along the eastern coast of Japan, the Onigawa nuclear plant, nearly identical to Dai’ichi, was hit just as hard by the quake and tsunami, yet suffered no damage at all. It remains in a condition in which it could even be re-started.

•       Down the coast, the reactors at Fukushima Dai’ni did lose backup power for a short period, but it was restored in time to prevent any damage.

•       Finally, and most importantly, we need to remember how many people were killed by radiation from the damaged reactors. Any guesses? —— The death toll from radiation remains stubbornly at…. ZERO.

The irony is that the disaster at Fukushima can legitimately be seen as a testament to the safety of nuclear power

Now, I do not mean to imply that the situation in Japan alone is what caused me to rethink my opposition to nukes. The incident is simply what started me on a path of self-education. Because of something a friend shared on Facebook, I decided to check what could have been a knee-jerk reaction to a very bad event. Reading Barry’s blog led me to information about issues other than the disaster.

•       I learned about fast breeder reactors, including the Integral Fast Reactor, which was designed to run on reprocessed used fuel from conventional reactors. The IFR project was about two years away from commercial demonstration when the funding was cut by Congress in 1994.

•       I learned about many other people who were writing about nuclear power. I began following dozens of fascinating sources.

•       I learned about how two of the three European nations — France and Sweden — with the lowest carbon emissions accomplished that by using lots of nuclear power.

•       And I learned about just how few people have in fact been killed in the history of nuclear power. Almost all of them were at Chernobyl, and that number was less than 100. Not a single person has been killed in the United States in the history of our nuclear industry, other than a handful of industrial accidents, which can happen in any industry. Not a single person has ever been killed in the United States by radiation from a commercial nuclear power reactor. In fact, in terms of fatalities per terawatt-hour of energy produced, nuclear power has the lowest death rate of any means of electrical generation humankind has ever invented.

And that, fellow Toastmasters, is how the disaster at Fukushima helped me, a left-leaning environmentalist concerned about climate change, learn to stop worrying and love the reactor.

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