May 2, 2011 • Current Events, Energy Innovation, Perspectives

Thoughts on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Incident

by Wyatt Taylor

It looks like it is left to me to break the silence on The Watercooler about the Japanese Fukushima nuclear incident. First, it might be months or years before we have a full picture of the damage at the plant and its impact on the environment and population. Our prayers go out to those impacted by the radiation. This incident is a sobering reminder that processes behind nuclear power production are complicated and allow a slim margin for error.

With that said, I haven’t seen a super-scary headline about the Japanese Fukushima nuclear incident in a few weeks, so I’m going to take that to mean the situation is nearing a status somewhat resembling “under control.” I sincerely hope we have seen the worst and can now transition to the learning phase. It’s crucial for energy professionals to figure out what went wrong and how we can prevent another incident.

For now, opponents of nuclear power are using the Fukushima incident to push for further restrictions on the industry. This is understandable since no one wants to see a similar incident in the U.S. But it also overlooks some very important distinctions. The circumstances at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are exceedingly rare – even one of the most powerful earthquakes in history and the resulting tsunami would not have precipitated the event had the plant not been reliant on exterior generators to run its cooling systems. The plant was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong design. To his great credit, President Obama seemed to grasp this when he re-asserted the importance and safety of nuclear power in the days after the Fukushima incident began. The American people seem to have followed suit: despite the headlines, popular support for nuclear power has not plummeted as you might expect.

Still, I believe the Fukushima incident should dramatically change the nuclear industry in this country – by accelerating the development of new technologies. Newer nuclear plant designs feature self-contained cooling systems that would have prevented much of the trouble experienced in Japan. Also, the potential development of so called “mini-nuke” plants could minimize the potential danger to the public should accidents occur. It would seem obvious to me the worst thing we could do is to freeze new development in the industry and continue to rely on the reactors built decades ago with old designs and old technology. When an airliner crashes, we don’t stop flying – we build a better plane. If the same attitude applied to nuclear power, we would be clearing away the bureaucratic red tape that has paralyzed the industry and charging forward with innovative technology to make nuclear power safer and more efficient.

In the months and years ahead, as we learn more about the Fukushima incident and its impact, I hope we will not be overcome with the paralysis of fear, but rather driven to innovate and improve a technology so important to our long term energy sustainability.

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