Swans Commentary » swans.com March 28, 2011  



Energy And The Tsunami


by Edward ("Paddy") Apling





(Swans - March 28, 2011)   The terrible earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan have caused not only massive devastation and the loss of thousands of lives over a wide area, but they also caused major problems at several nuclear power plants, particularly at Fukushima. It is these nuclear problems that have tended to dominate discussions in the news media.

The radioactive plumes from the Fukushima plant have so far caused slightly raised levels of radioactivity across a wide area. Nevertheless, dangerous levels have been essentially confined to workers at the site.

The threatened meltdown of spent fuel rods in underwater storage at the plant is entirely due to the complete loss of electrical power in the area. This loss of electrical power eliminated the pumping of cooling water to the storage ponds and elsewhere in the plant. This allowed the heat generated by the fuel rods to raise the temperature sufficiently to boil the radioactive ponds dry.

The continued heating threatened not simply the release of radioactivity to the atmosphere, but also the loss of integrity of the ponds' structures. This could release the melted nuclear material to an uncontrolled, and possibly uncontrollable, area around the ponds, and would potentially threaten any further rehabilitation of the plant. Certainly, some elements in the rods such as iodine, strontium, and caesium would be emitted to the atmosphere, but considering the known effects of the 1986 complete meltdown at Chernobyl, the expected resulting deaths would be far less than those already caused by the earthquake and tsunami themselves. And, anyway, hope still remains of avoiding the meltdown.

It is necessary to emphasize that damage at the plant was entirely due to the unforeseen strength of the tsunami, which poured over the insufficient sea defences, putting out of action all electrical mains and backup power, with consequent failure of all the cooling water pumps, the development of fires in the plant, and the overheating of the spent rods in the storage ponds. It is supremely evident that the design of the plant coped very well with an earthquake of a severity greater than had been designed for, but was overwhelmed by the height of the tsunami.

If similar provision for resistance to a severe earthquake was considered and implemented in the design and construction of the nuclear plants in California, then the dismal scenario forecast by Alexander Cockburn (1) is far from the reality of this industry.

Widespread reports of radioactivity in water and the atmosphere of what is described as thrice normal levels sounds far more threatening than it is in practice. It has never been properly explained to the public that acceptable levels of radioactivity are set at a level at the most 1/100th the lowest accepted no effect level for human health. This is a level of the kind that has widespread use in the control and assessment of the dangers to human health of substantially all pollutants known to be dangerous at high levels, including food additives and the like, as well as radioactivity.

Nevertheless, public concern exists, and it becomes necessary to discuss whether governments should abandon nuclear energy as a source of electrical power.

Available energy sources

Current energy sources used in the United Kingdom are approximately 39% coal; 36% gas; 22% nuclear; 2% hydro & pumped storage, 1 to 2%; and wind 1 to 2%. (2) Similar figures for the United States are 1% petroleum, 17% natural gas, 51% coal, 9% renewable, and 21% nuclear.

Usages in other developed countries are broadly similar, with France being notable for its concentration on hydro and nuclear.

Costings for the United Kingdom are not readily available to me, but costings predicted in the United States for 2016 show anticipated cost per megawatt hour as approximately: coal (various technologies) $65 to $93, gas (various technologies) $17 to $46, nuclear $90, hydro $52, wind (onshore) $84, wind (offshore) $210, solar $195 to $260. (3)

What is remarkable about these figures are the relatively low cost of coal, and the relatively high cost of the newer renewables, wind and solar. Coal is, and seems likely to remain for at least decades, the major fuel for electricity supply in most countries.

Wind power sources are highly subject to weather variability; and solar power is only operative during daylight hours, and is similarly subject to variability of cloud cover. Accordingly, both these sources require equivalent back up from power plants powered with conventional or nuclear fuels. Neither can be considered as practical alternatives to conventional plants.

Realism about Energy

Energy is, undoubtedly, fundamental to all modern society.

With a steady and reliable source of electrical energy all things are possible.

For anyone living in the Western world, where a reliable and continuous source of electrical power is taken for granted, it is very hard to understand the difficulties of development, or even of everyday living, that faces millions in much of the rest of the world.

Just try to remember the difficulties you found during the last power failure you experienced; which, if you live in one of the leading economies, probably lasted for only a few minutes, or hours, not for weeks or months, and you will realise how crucial is a reliable power supply.

Until a means of large-scale storage of electricity at far above the megawatt-hour level is found, renewables can only make a relatively minor, and always unreliable, contribution to world energy supplies.

The really important thing to understand is that renewables cannot produce the reliable electrical power we need, and we shall remain for a considerable period reliant on coal, gas, oil, and nuclear power for our main and reliable energy needs.

Nuclear Waste

Nuclear waste is considered waste because it is not sufficiently high in radioactivity to be useful for concentration as fuel and yet is dangerous to humans in quantity.

There are at present only two basic ways of getting rid of it, either to hide it deep underground in cement (or lead) encasements, or spread it around!

Widely distributed as small particles in the atmosphere or in the oceans, the total quantity of radiation would be insignificant compared to the size of the earth and its background radioactivity, to which it would cause no significant increase. The radioactivity of the waste is per mass relatively low, but it is also of long half-life, so will remain at substantially the same level for perhaps centuries or longer, and that is why it is so dangerous bulked into a small place.

The troubles with the second method are two-fold. The technical problems are: what chemical compounds of the radioactive elements to choose for the dispersal, and then how to spread it so that it is really fully dispersed around the world. The third problem is one of public relations. Whatever is proposed cannot seem to calm the inordinate fear of radioactivity that grips the populace. Unfortunately, few seem capable of understanding the quip of the old sage Paracelsus that "the poison is in the dose." Certainly there has not, so far, been any public relations attempt to explain it.

It is perfectly feasible that a third method, involving inhibition of the radioactivity, may become available in the future as a result of further understanding of nuclear physics as a result of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider resulting in further understanding of the controlling features of quantum mechanics in nuclear physics.

As one who was early, well before the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, against the use of atomic energy for military instead of peaceful (power) uses, I fear that the one thing our campaigns have left is this apparently all-pervading fear (akin to panic) of radioactivity. In practice radioactivity is a part of reality for which we know extremely well how to check on dangers, and how to use for benefit.

Fear of radioactivity is understandable, because it cannot be seen or felt. Local radioactivity is readily detectable and measured with electronic instruments based on the Geiger counter. Nevertheless, it is completely out of the individual's personal control.

Yet the current background of radioactivity everywhere is barely affected by all the radioactive fallout introduced to the atmosphere since 1945, and is mainly due to the radioactivity of the earth itself, together with the constant bombardment of the earth by so-called cosmic rays originating from the far corners of the universe.

I am no expert in inorganic chemistry, being more used to dealing with biological materials, an area in which low radioactivity materials have been so beneficial in experimentation, and in medicine. So, though I would, in principal, prefer the second method (dilution) to the first method (localised hiding), I have no real idea of how to carry it out in practice.

To enlarge on my reference above to Paracelsus, this is the pet name of the wonderfully-named Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheimm, who was a famous physician, alchemist, and astrologer of the early 16th century. He was probably the first to recognise that there are many substances very well known to the lay public that can be medicine at small doses, while causing illness at larger doses. One example group consists of the vitamins, unknown in his day, but now known to be so necessary in small amounts in the daily diet, despite being able to cause medical problems at higher doses. It is a finding of exceedingly wide applicability.

Radioactivity can be both a cause and a cure for cancer. It all depends on the dose. Of course, it is up to government agencies and the nuclear power industry itself, to contain radioactivity within acceptable limits for human health.

It does seem that at least part of the public relations problem of nuclear power resides in the common perception that governments, and by extension their public servants, cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

Nevertheless nuclear power has served well, with remarkably few accidents involving fatalities or injuries to either the public or its workforce. Indeed, in so far as its immediate and associated workforce is concerned, its record is probably better than that of all the other power sources considered.

As experience and development continues, nuclear energy holds out the best prospect of a truly environmentally benign and reliable provider of electrical power. It must be supported until, in the possibly distant future, its fission reaction method can be superseded by the hopeful paragon of the fusion reaction.

It is time to rid ourselves of the influence of the jeremiads who constantly exaggerate dangers and ignore the benefits of every new development in science and technology.


To e-mail this article


· · · · · ·


If you find Paddy Apling's work valuable, please consider helping us

· · · · · ·



Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Edward Apling 2011. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


About the Author

Paddy Apling is a retired British scientist. His bio reads with many acronyms: "BSc MChemA CChem FRSC FIFST MRSPH Lecturer in Food Science, University of Reading, 1962-1986 Professional Member, AACC International Professional Member, Institute of Food Technology (USA) Member, Society of Chemical Industry." Put it in simpler terms, he is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Food Science & Technology, qualified for appointment as Public Analyst, retired from University of Reading (1962-86). Apling maintains his own Blog at http://apling.freeservers.com/. To learn more about him, please read Louis Proyect's recollection of his meeting with Paddy in Manhattan, January 2009.   (back)


· · · · · ·



1.  Alexander Cockburn, In the Midst of Fukushima: Ahoy There, Nuke-Loving Greens, Welcome to the Real World! Counterpunch, March 18 - 20, 2011  (back)

2.  neta Electricity Summary, updated hourly.  (back)

3.  Levelized energy cost chart 1, 2011 DOE report.gif Source: Energy Information Adninstration, December 2010, DOE/EIA -- 0383(2)  (back)


· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Patterns which Connect

Arts & Culture

· · · · · ·


This edition's other articles

Check the front page, where all current articles are listed.



Check our past editions, where the past remains very present.

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/paddy01.html
Published March 28, 2011