Every August I think of Hiroshima. Aug. 6 is the day, in 1945, that the United States of America detonated an atomic bomb named Little Boy over this Japanese city, then three days later detonated another bomb named Fat Man over Nagasaki. These blasts devastated both cities, and many residents who survived them died days, weeks or months later of radiation poisoning.
Most Americans believe that these two bombs—still the only nuclear bombs used in warfare—hastened the surrender of Japan and the end of World War Two.
The first-ever atomic bomb had been tested three weeks earlier - at 5:29:45 a.m., July 16, 1945 - in the White Sands Desert of New Mexico, near Alamagordo. This device was detonated at the top of a 100-foot steel tower, in order to simulate the air-explosion method used soon afterward in Japan, and also to reduce radioactive dust raised by the explosion.
Radioactive fallout from the Alamagordo blast was detected as far away as Indiana, and unaware residents in New Mexico certainly drank irradiated rainwater and milk, but public radiation exposure was largely ignored for the next 10years, and hushed up for longer than that.
An era of above ground nuclear bomb tests persisted until a 1963 treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union sent their nuclear bomb tests (conducted in Nevada and in Kazakhstan) underground. For a time, other countries that had developed nuclear weapons did continue to test these devices above the ground or over the ocean (France, for example, used remote South Pacific islands as its testing sites) but atmospheric testing has now largely vanished.
But radiation does not travel only through air; it also travels in water. And it does not come only from nuclear bombs; it can also emerge from breached nuclear reactors.
A massive earthquake and the resultant tidal wave slammed into the coast of northern Japan on March 11, and so damaged three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daichi complex there that Japanese experts have estimated their fallout at 20 to 30 times the amount released in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (see “The Fukushima Nightmare Gets Worse” by Harvey Wasserman in The Progressive, August 10, 2013).
Much of that radiation emanating from Fukushima is radioactive water flowing into the sea.
Creating plutonium and other materials to use in nuclear bombs was the primary reason that the U.S. built the first nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy as a means of boiling water to create steam to spin turbines and generate electricity was an offshoot — almost an afterthought — but an afterthought enthusiastically adopted worldwide because nuclear energy was supposed to be inexpensive and nearly inexhaustible - “too cheap to meter,” as some scientists claimed.
It hasn’t turned out that way. The basic feedstock for nuclear power plants (at least for now) is uranium, which like the fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas - is finite. Irreplaceable. More and more difficult to find, extract and refine. And ever more expensive.
Roll in the cost of building containers and systems to control the nuclear chain reaction and prevent meltdowns. Roll in the cost of massive government subsidies to develop, maintain, inspect and insure this form of power. Then comes the cost of shutting down nuclear reactors after a few decades because they are too “hot” to continue functioning. Finally, the cost of isolating an array of highly toxic radioactive wastes from contact with the biosphere for tens, hundreds, thousands, perhaps (in the case of plutonium) a couple of million years — and nuclear power becomes incalculably expensive.
Fukushima now ranks with the major nuclear power plant catastrophes over the years, including Chelyabinsk, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. So add the catastrophic costs of human illness and death. Of human beings driven from their homes (160,000 were evacuated from the Fukushima area, and many will never return). Add the cost of contaminated plants and soils, contaminated fish and waters.
Nuclear power plants require enormous amounts of water, mainly for cooling. Spent fuel rods, for instance, must be cooled for a very long time. And water is at the heart of a nuclear energy crisis in North Asia just now surfacing — or resurfacing.
That radioactive water at Fukushima includes water flowing down steep slopes through the crippled power plant and water emerging from a major aquifer beneath the plant. It is pouring into the Pacific at the reported rate of 400,000 gallons per day (see “In North Asia, a growing crisis of confidence in nuclear power” — Reuters News, Aug. 9).
Workers for the owner of the Fukushima facility, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), had tried to keep groundwater from leaking into the ocean by injecting chemicals intended to harden the ground along the shoreline of the No. 1 reactor building.
However, a retired nuclear engineer who has worked at several Tepco plants, said (in an Aug. 6 Reuters story), “If you build a wall, the water is going to accumulate there. And there is no other way for the water to go but up or sideways and eventually lead to the ocean. So now, the question is how long do we have?”
The company’s “sense of crisis is weak,” said the head of Japan’s regulatory agency. “Right now, we have an emergency.”
Forty-eight nuclear power plants — that’s almost all of Japan’s nuclear plants - remain shut down, pending the resolution of a crisis that may never be resolved.
In Taiwan, a nuclear power complex at Shihmen, on the island’s sparsely populated northern coast - but not far from the densely populated city of Taipei - has been leaking radioactive water, probably from the storage pools at two reactors, perhaps for three years.
While this water has been collected in a reservoir used for spent fuel rods, and has been recycled back into the leaking ponds, Taiwan’s government watchdog agency says there has been no explanation for the water leak and, beyond that, the company lacks a proper plan for handling spent nuclear materials.
A plan to build a fourth nuclear power plant on Taiwan has been held up for four years due to concerns about safety and by street protests.
Taiwan gets 18.4 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Japan — before Fukushima and the closing of most of its nuclear power plants — got about 30 percent. And South Korea still gets about one-third of its electricity from nuclear plants, but South Korea, too, is having problems.
Six reactors in South Korea are currently shut down, three for maintenance or because their permits have expired, the other three to replace cables that were supplied illegally, with forged documents.
There’s a massive investigation into flawed reactors, with dozens of parts makers and officials charged with bribery or falsifying safety certificates. The former chief executive officer of the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power faces bribery charges.
Finally, for now, set aside corruption, set aside health and safety and environmental costs, and journey back across the Pacific (and across the Atlantic as well) for a story about the purely financial costs of nuclear energy.
The source is another Reuters story, July 30, by Geert De Clercq, who writes: “French utility EDF, the world’s biggest operator of nuclear plants, is pulling out of nuclear energy in the United States, bowing to the realities of a market that has been transformed by cheap shale gas.”
EDF’s chief executive, Henri Proglio, explained that “circumstances for the development of nuclear in the U.S. are not favorable at the moment.”
You caught that, right? “The world’s biggest operator of nuclear power plants” — which also, by the way, owns an energy trading operation with 320 employees that is the number one exporter of U.S. coal to Europe — is bailing out on nuke energy in the U.S.
What’s more, EDF is proposing to shift its U.S. investments to renewable energy.
Actually, the shift is already well under way. EDF employs 860 people in U.S. solar and wind, and since 2010 its generating capacity has doubled to 2.3 gigawatts. It manages another 7 gigawatts for other companies.
I’ve not (yet) been able to clarify whether these “gigawatt” figures refer only to the United States — the context suggests that they do — but browsing various EDF websites describing its recent investments in wind farms and solar and biomass ventures, this would not surprise me.
After all, EDF is “Europe’s biggest power producer by output,” according to De Clercq, and this obviously includes nuclear power plants in France and elsewhere (EDF is trying to help revive nuclear power in Great Britain), but this also includes significant wind, solar, hydropower, biomass and even tidal power projects in a number of European countries — as well as in countries around the planet, like Laos.
In short, EDF is a big global player, and its move in 2008 to buy 49 percent of Constellation Energy Nuclear Group, which operates five nuclear plants in the United States with a total capacity of 3.9 gigawatts, simply went sour.
De Clercq cites International Energy Agency analyst Dennis Volk, who says that the eastern U.S. power plants in which EDF invested were “located in some of the most competitive power markets in the country,” with high price competition, and not only cheap “hydro-fracked” natural gas from shale but also “growing wind capacity.”
Volk said, “It is simply not easy to invest in nuclear and recover your money there.”
There, and perhaps not anywhere.