Nuclear power: a short-lived Renaissance

When I moved in during the Fall of 1995, the heating system of my new house consisted of individually controlled, electric baseboard heaters. I thought about switching to a more conventional heating system but decided to wait until Spring. That February, my electric bill was more than $700, and that with the house kept at a chilly 67 degrees. Before the next winter, I had a more efficient and affordable heating system installed. I also found myself speaking with a Vice President of Mass Electric at some social event. I asked her how anyone could have installed an all electric heating system in a house in New England. She asked if the house had been built in 1970 (it was constructed in 1969) because, she continued “back then, they expected there to be a nuclear reactor in every neighborhood and they’d have to pay you to use all the electricity that would be produced.”

But then came Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, and safety concerns about nuclear power put that industry in a near coma. Recently, however, with gasoline bumping up towards the $4 per gallon mark and with no known nuclear near-accidents of any consequence, nuclear power has enjoyed a kind of renaissance, at least in theory. No discussion of alternative energy policy held these days lacks a nuclear power component.

Today’s news from Japan is not good. In the aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami, two nuclear power plants seem to be dangerously out of control. The latest stories make it clear that whether this will be a near miss or a complete catastrophe is still an open question. Regardless of the end result, I suspect that this hazardous situation in Japan has dealt a significant set back to the nuclear power industry in the United States.

5 Responses to Nuclear power: a short-lived Renaissance

  1. Andrew says:

    We do tend to react to dramatic events. Even if the meltdowns in Japan follow the worst possible path forward, the total number of people killed in all nuclear accidents ever would still be less than 15% of the number of Americans killed by air pollution in one year. That is, if that year is among the most pollution-free in the past few decades; the mortality rate is usually significantly higher.

  2. Corey says:

    Andrew, it really depends what happens here. Either way, this is a powerful reminder that nuclear power has risks.

    People today are claiming that Chernobyl was overreacted to and that the radiation isn’t really *that* bad. Maybe so, maybe not. However, radioactive accidents linger for a long, long time. Using our local example of Seabrook, a 20 km evacuation zone, like they have in Japan right now, would evacuate everyone from just outside of downtown Portsmouth to just outside of downtown Haverhill. If it somehow melts down and burns like in Chernobyl (theoretically impossible in a western style water-mediated and cooled reactor), the 30 km exclusion zone would make everything from the eastern edge of Lawrence to beyond the Kittery Outlets uninhabitable.

  3. JoeS says:

    Maybe the approach to designing nuclear plants should be revisited. It may be that they have been designed for power and effectiveness, and then a layer of safety is applied. If safety were to be included in the initial design criteria, maybe power and effectiveness would be sacrificed for more fool-proof safety.

    We will look to avoiding areas of high fault susceptibility, but that may not eliminate other risks such as terrorism.

  4. corey says:

    Joe, that’s the thing: Japanese reactors are the safest in the world. Multiple failures need to happen to get us here, just like at three mile island. No matter what, the seawater cooling operation they’re doing now has ruined a plant worth millions and millions, even if nobody gets sick (the likely outcome.)