Tuesday, March 15, 2011

One low carbon power source is off the table

After the tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear power plants - there are a total of 10 reactors at two sites producing a peak of 9096 MW per hour - nuclear power worldwide has been dealt a serious blow.

Global warming has offered a new life to nuclear power globally because once a reactor is up and running there are very few CO2 emissions.    In general the environmental movement has not jumped on the nuclear band wagon, but given that the Kyoto protocol calls for a drop in CO2 emissions in developed countries and nukes achieve that, many countries have ramped up plans for new nuclear power plants

Since the late 1980s the rate of new nuclear power reactors globally has remained steady at about 420.   Basically the near disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the actual melt down at Chernobyl in 1986 ended the expansion of nuclear power.  It has only been with the rise in concern about global warming that the expansion of nuclear power has come back.   There are now numerous plans around the world to build large numbers of new reactors.  2008, 2009 and 2010 saw the start of 10, 12, and 15 new reactors.  At teh end of 2010 there were 441 nuclear power plants in operation and 63 under construction.

And then there was a tsunami.

On its own, the Fukushima nuclear disaster would be worldwide news, but it is only one part of the earthquake-tsunami.   It is not only the Fukushima plants, but the Onagawa and Tokai plants that had problems as well.   It also has highlighted the fact that in 2007 the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant suffered some damage in a small earthquake. The same happened in 2008 at the Kurihara Nuclear Power Plant.

The idea that nuclear power is safe is not nearly as certain as people thought a couple of weeks ago.

The problems in 2007 and 2008 in Japan highlight the relative danger of nuclear power plants and earthquakes and this does not take very large earthquakes.  The potential of a major nuclear disaster in the event of a major earthquake seems to be almost certain.

Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California
Within the region of the Cascadia subduction zone, there is one nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station in Richland Washington.  There was a second one, the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon, which closed in 1992 after only 16 years of operation.  Of bigger concern is the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California.   It may survive an earthquake, but what about a tsunami?

Diablo Canyon was designed and built before there was a lot of thinking of megathrust earthquakes of tsunamis.

Nuclear power is not likely to be dead, but it has been hit with a serious blow and is unlikely to recover anytime soon if there is a complete meltdown of the Fukushima power plant.