Nuclear power needed despite Japanese disaster, Nobel scientist says

Author: Elona Malterre

Source: EnviroLine

Publish Date: Monday, March 21, 2011

 More nuclear energy will be needed if the world wants to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, despite the nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, says a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
    However, energy regulators in the United States and Canada should be checking to ensure that both countries’ nuclear power plants can safely withstand a combination of natural disasters, Burton Richter, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, told EnviroLine.
    “I still don’t see how, with the technology we have today, we can do what we need to do to reduce emissions without it (nuclear power), Richter said in a phone interview from his office in California.
    Richter is the Paul Pigott Professor of Physical Sciences Emeritus at Stanford, and the Director Emeritus at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1976.
    He spoke to EnviroLine just days after a massive earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale devastated northeastern Japan. The quake was followed by a catastrophic tsunami that knocked out power, including emergency diesel generators, to cooling systems at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear complex on the northeast coast. That triggered explosions, fires and fears of a possible partial core meltdown in up to three of the complex’s six reactors.
    Richter said that 50 years from now, it is possible that someone will invent a new energy technology that makes nuclear power unnecessary.
    “But for now, if (we) want to achieve this goal of 20% of 1990 or 80% below 1990 (greenhouse gas) emissions by 2050 . . . I don’t see how we’re going to do it without stable, low-emission nuclear (power) as part of the mix,” he said. 
    The partial core meltdown at one of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant’s reactors near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1979 resulted in very low radiation levels off the plant site, Richter said. Yet no nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. since that accident. 
    The disaster at the Fukushima complex will likely result in a pause worldwide in building new nuclear reactors, he said. “And I don’t know when we’re going to see it start again . . . I think a lot depends on analysis of what really happened at Fukushima . . . .”
    The earthquake itself apparently did no damage to the Fukushima- Daiichi reactors, he said. But then the subsequent tsunami “overtopped (the site’s) seawall and flooded their site, and also flooded out the emergency generators so that they couldn’t run the emergency core-cooling systems.”
    Another nuclear power complex not far from the Fukushima-Daiichi site was hit by a much shallower tsunami because of the configuration of the coastline, Richter noted. That plant “didn’t get flooded and it had no problems . . . the power went off but all the emergency systems worked fine.” 
    Moreover, the Fukushima-Daiichi complex consists of “relatively old reactors,” he added. “The new-generation reactors have more robust emergency core-cooling systems.”
    The Fukushima-Daiichi reactors started operating between 1970 and 1979, according to The Virtual Nuclear Tourist website (
    Nuclear regulatory commissions in the U.S. and Canada should be looking closely at reactors in both countries to ensure all are adequately protected against combinations of disasters, Richter said.
    In the U.S., that combination could include earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and forest fires.
    “All sites are not going to have all of those things, but sites are going to have some combination,” he said. “Do the safety systems stand up to analysis from more than one problem?
    “I believe the answer in the U.S. is ‘Yes,’ but I don’t know that for sure. So I think that our Congress . . . should be asking the nuclear regulatory commission to look into that question.”
    In February 2011, Richter visited Calgary to present a public talk in the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy’s Distinguished Speaker Series
    He told his audience of about 250 that by 2100, the world’s population will be using four times the amount of energy now being used. Yet greenhouse gas emissions will need to be much lower to prevent disastrous climate change.
    That means greater efficiencies will need to be incorporated into energy systems, Richter said. One way of achieving these efficiencies is with nuclear power, which “is expanding all over the world except in the U.S.”
    France, which generates 80 per cent of its power from nuclear reactors, emits half the greenhouse gases per unit of Gross National Product compared with other European Union countries, and has the “cheapest electricity in Europe,” he noted.
    Japan, which has no domestic fossil fuel resources, generates 40 per cent of its power with nuclear energy. That makes Japan less vulnerable to the global price volatility of fossil fuels and the political instability associated with their production, Richter said.
    The big advantage of nuclear over other fuels is the intensity of energy produced, he pointed out. “The amount of nuclear power to run a one billion-watt electric power plant fits in only part of one of the cargo containers that we ship around the world.”
    Richter’s talk at the University of Calgary was based on his recent book, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st. Century.
    He wrote: “All of the natural energy is not readily accessible. Oceans cover 70% of the world. We cannot absorb all of the wind without disastrous climate problems. If we used all the photosynthesis, there would be no flowers to admire or food to eat.”
    People who advocate relying on renewable or alternative energy sources are pushing on “too narrow a front,” Richter told his Calgary audience.
    Some people may be skeptical about how much industrial emissions are affecting climate change, but no one is skeptical about the benefits of paying less for energy, he said.
    Even conservative politicians agree that less expensive energy is a good idea, as is not having to worry about someone cutting off their fuel supply, he added.
    Advocates of alternative energy sources as a way of achieving cheaper, secure energy should consider the impacts on the economy, and also think of new marketing strategies for nuclear energy, Richter said. 
    He challenged critics who contend that nuclear power is prohibitively expensive. This notion is “simply not true,” he said, pointing to examples of economic nuclear plants operating in Britain, France and Finland.
    In terms of safety, the biggest dose of radiation experienced by the public from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident “was the equivalent of going to spend two years in Denver,” Richter said.
    The Colorado mountain city’s geographical elevation potentially exposes Denver residents to more cosmic radiation than, for example, residents of low-lying coastal cities.
    Everyone is exposed to naturally occurring radiation no matter where they live, Richter said. “It comes from cosmic rays that rain down on you from the sky. It comes from uranium and other radioactive elements in the rock around you.”
    The radioactive potassium present in every person’s bones is “a natural part of the potassium that exists in the world,” he added. “It was made by a supernova billions of years ago, and it’s incorporated into the Earth just like magnesium, thorium and other such things.”
    The human body contains about 40 microrems worth of naturally occurring radioactive materials. A one-gigawatt nuclear power plant will expose a person to approximately 0.004 microrems of radiation, while a coal-fired power plant will result in an exposure of 0.003 microrems, Richter said.
    So, the amount of radiation a person would be exposed to from a nuclear power plant “is less than one-ten thousandth of what you get from natural things. That’s not something to really worry about.”
    Society needs a marketing strategy that says nuclear power is good for the planet – economically, environmentally and in terms of energy security, he said. 
    Richter noted that China emits about five kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions annually per person. The U.S. emits about 18 kg of CO2 annually per person, and Canada 16 kg.
    Countries around the world are moving to ramp up nuclear power production, to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change, while the U.S. seems stuck in trying to implement an energy strategy, he said.
    In what he described as his “action agenda,” Richter called for improved energy efficiencies in transportation and greater use of existing technologies to reduce oil use and greenhouse gas emissions.
    Natural gas and nuclear fuel should be used to replace coal for electricity production, he said. Wind and solar power can be added to the mix, provided they don’t cause problems because of their intermittent energy supply.
    Society also needs to focus on improving energy efficiencies in buildings, and on more R&D on energy storage and on carbon capture and storage, Richter said.
    However, the biggest challenge is to convince governments to implement policies that support an action agenda on efficient energy systems, he said. He listed what he called “Richter’s Laws of Government Inaction:”
•    1st Law, The Law of Delay: The future is hard to predict because it hasn’t happened yet; therefore, we don’t know enough to do anything about it.
•    2nd Law: No matter how good a solution is, we have to wait for a better one.
    In an ironic comment, Richter said that such reasoning is why none of the U.S. policy options offered so far include large-scale substitution of natural gas for coal to generate electricity, because doing so would address only two-thirds of the nation’s emissions problem.
•    3rd Law: Short-term pain is a deterrent to action no matter how much good an action will do in the long term.
    “And that (perception) is your fault,” Richter told his audience. “Because you are the voters, and the appreciation of ‘Give a little bit now to get a lot in the future’. . . politicians are afraid of it because they think the voters won’t deal with it.” 
•    4th Law: The largest public subsidies go to the least effective technologies.
    Richter said that in the U.S., an example of this kind of approach is the subsidies provided to produce corn ethanol, which he called “nonsense” in reducing emissions.
    When it comes to future energy systems, his fuel “winners” based on efficiencies are: natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear. Wind power won’t make significant inroads until the intermittency problem is seriously addressed, he said.
    Policy makers need to think about “the dimensions of the economy and national security” when it comes to energy policy, Richter said. “(They) ask what we can do that’s cheap. Efficiency is cheap,” he added, suggesting that his audience read a report on energy efficiency.
    “Making major gains in energy efficiency is one of the most economical and effective ways our nation can wean itself off its dependence on foreign oil and reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases,” according to the September 2008 report, Energy Future: Think Efficiency, by the American Physical Society, the largest organization of professional physicists in the U.S. (
    Transportation and buildings account for two-thirds of all energy use in the U.S., the report says. Technologies exist to make these sectors far more energy efficient, but market imperfections and political will inhibit the adoption of such technologies, it says. EnviroLine

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