Meltdown of Trust in Nuclear Power

March 23, 2011

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that operates the Fukushima Number One nuclear power plant where several of its six reactors have had a partial meltdown, turns out to be a sleazy outfit.  In 2002 the Japanese government announced that TEPCO had been falsifying inspection data for two decades.  Even if TEPCO’s negligence did not contribute to the meltdown, its deception and Japan’s lax enforcement has compromised the public’s trust in nuclear power. The industry would have been better served by strict, independent regulation.

It seems likely that had Japan had a vigorous and independent nuclear regulatory agency, it would have compelled TEPCO to make the Fukushima Number One complex more resistant to damage from an earthquake and tsunami, which is an obvious hazard on the Japanese coast. In particular, GE designed reactor number one to withstand a peak ground acceleration of only 1.74 m/s2, using data from the 1952 quake in Kern County California.  California is a poor model. Its earthquakes are caused by an ocean tectonic plate that sideswipes the continent.  In Japan, the ocean plate and the continental plate collide head on.  The recent Sendai earthquake registered a peak ground acceleration of 3.43 m/s2. 

Furthermore, the backup generators, which are essential to maintaining power that cools fuel rods to prevent overheating and melt down, were located where they could be flooded by the tsunami.  Government regulators could have and should have foreseen these potential problems.

TEPCO’s long-term, systematic deception proves that it cannot be trusted with the public safety.  The government’s tardy discovery of TEPCO’s deception proves that it cannot be trusted to oversee the industry.  Unfortunately, the combination of these two facts fully justifies the public’s mistrust of nuclear power, which could provide a cheap, safe, and clean source of energy. 

The core issue is not the nature of nuclear power, but mistrust of governments that are dominated by business interests.  Business suffers no economic hardship from strict regulation that is enforced uniformly across the industry.  Still business routinely opposes what it calls intrusive government regulation.  What is at stake is not money, but power.  Business leaders dream of establishing an oligarchy that will permit them to run the government.  They have succeeded to some degree in most countries, certainly in Japan.

However, the hubris of business oligarchs does not serve the interests of their shareholders or of the industry.  The oligarchs’ success has set back the nuclear power industry when we need it most to fuel the world wide economic recovery. 

Alternatives, such as natural gas, are not the answer.  All practical options have the potential for negative side effects that require regulation.  For example, if we make wide spread use of liquefied natural gas, we will greatly increase the hazard from BLEVEs (pronounced blev-ee), which are boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions.  BLEVEs occur when a tank that maintains liquefied gas under pressure ruptures and the pressure release causes the liquid to boil and the gas to expand. BLEVEs cause extremely destructive explosions that scatter tank fragments in all directions and frequently kill fire fighters.  Worse still, liquefied gas tanks would provide a tempting target for terrorists. 

It is unrealistic to hope the business oligarchs will not control the government agencies that regulate them, if they want to.  However, it is not perhaps too much to hope the business leaders will be able to overcome their hubris to the extent that they can use the government as a trusted third party.  The nuclear power, industry should support strong and independent regulation to keep shoddy players such as TEPCO from poisoning public confidence in the entire industry.

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