Politicians, not least in the USA and Europe, are espousing greener energy and advocating massive reductions in carbon emissions in the relatively near future, whilst doing little to allay the fears of a generally ill-informed public on a practical means to bring this energy policy about. An obvious practical means but the one most prolific in doomsday scenarios, is the development, expansion and more intensive use of nuclear power.
Understandably, in the light of the Fukushima reactor disaster in March 2011, nearly all nuclear power companies and governments of countries with nuclear plants have checked and revised their safety measures for such facilities, or are still in the process of doing so. However, a government policy to abandon nuclear energy in the country's energy mix, as is about to be implemented in Germany, might in future lead to giving up on many of these green, emission saving targets. Time for some cool thinking?
On Friday, 22 August 2008, Reuters reporter Timothy Gardner headlined an article: "NY nuclear plant likely a quake risk: study." The study had been conducted by seismologists from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and concentrated on the Ramapo fault line running from Stamford, Connecticut to Peekskill, New York.
Seismic activity was found to be a lot more frequent and active than previously thought. This lead one of the main authors of the report, Lynn Sykes, to conclude that although strong earthquakes in New York are very rare, the risks that even small/medium quakes posed were just as great or higher than in say, California, more noted for its seismic activity, due to the larger and much denser population in the north-east United States.
The main cause for concern is that situated within only a couple of miles of the Ramapo fault line is the Indian Point nuclear power reactor in Buchanan, a small community on the east bank of the Hudson, about 41 miles north of New York City.
Indian Point Energy Center (IPEC) is owned by Entergy Corporation and has three nuclear units, the oldest, which began commercial operations in 1962 now decommissioned. Plants 2 and 3 are Pressurized Water Reactors (PWR) manufactured by Westinghouse (reactor systems and turbines) and General Electric (generators).
Running at an average 98 per cent capacity, one of the highest achieved in the power generation industry, the IPEC reactors produce 2,010 megawatts of electricity, sufficient for up to 30 per cent of the energy needs of New York City and adjoining Westchester County.
Although only some 275,000 people live within a 10-mile radius of the power station, that increases to nearly a million within 20 miles and 17.3 million within a 50-mile radius - the distance that the American State Department advised its citizens to remain outside, to avoid any harm from the Fukushima reactor fallout in Japan.
Back in 2008, IPEC's Jim Steets said that the Columbia University study added nothing to what was already known when Indian Point was built and that the nuclear plant had been constructed to withstand a magnitude 6.1 quake on the Richter scale, well above the study's examples of five on the Richter scale experienced in the vicinity of New York in 1737, 1783 and 1884. The study went on to observe that "stronger quakes in the area are possible."
Unfortunately for the nuclear industry and its proponents, one doesn't have to believe that reactors have to be manufactured to withstand a catastrophe like that shown in the film 2012 to know that there is a large and vocal body against any use of nuclear energy, civil or military, just ready to pounce on the industry's failings.
A report in The New York Times by David Halbfinger on 23 April 2010, shows that Indian Point was denied a water-quality certification due to its "outmoded cooling technology". The certification is a prerequisite for a 20-year renewal by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission after 2013 and 2015 for Indian Point's reactors 2 and 3.
Certification denial by New York State and its Department of Environmental Conservation, was hailed as a victory, both by environmentalists and the anti-nuclear lobby which now includes a number of State Assemblymen. The ruling came shortly after President Obama's 2010, State of the Union address which urged construction of new nuclear plants. Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, expressed his disappointment regarding the judgement - no surprise there.
At issue was the quality of water discharged after use by the power station and the water-organism kill thus caused. Every day, Indian Point's water intake from the Hudson River amounts to 2.5 billion gallons - more than twice the daily consumption of New York City. This water is used to create steam for the plant's turbines and to cool the reactors. Once this process is finished, the water is then discharged into the Hudson, some 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit hotter.
Indian Point's "once through" cooling system was no longer state of the art by the late 70s. The upgrade to the newest and best "closed-cycle" system, that would require one-tenth of the water currently used and works rather like a car's radiator, would cost Entergy $1.1 billion and close down both reactors entirely for 42 weeks according to a company spokesman.
In the normal course of events, nuclear energy companies with older type reactors, could look forward to battling for State, Federal and public support, both in and out of the law courts and most of us would be little the wiser. It has taken one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded, quickly followed by a giant tsunami to put nuclear safety back on governments' radar screens. The response of the authorities has ranged from the sensible, nearly all have reviewed their nuclear safety drills and measures; to the understandable, and to one of overreaction.
Nearly everywhere nuclear power has been put on hold, though this in itself creates a problem. Whilst Japan, the USA and other countries stall the building of new and safer reactor deployments, older plants, less technologically advanced, are perforce to have their working lives extended before they can be either decommissioned or a phased programme of improvements implemented.
Now the understandable: Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)'s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (Fukushima I) will not be allowed to restart - ever, the Governor of Fukushima Province, Mr Yuhei Sato insisted last Friday, 22 April 2011 on NHK Television. Mr Sato is also demanding that TEPCO pay massive compensation, including loss of earnings, to the 180,000 or so people who have been displaced to outside the danger zone from the nuclear contamination of the stricken plants.
The big positive that can be drawn from the Fukushima disaster is the fact that the 40+ year-old plant was not damaged by the magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale earthquake but by the ensuing tsunami. The New York Times on 21 March 2011, quoted Entergy's vice-president of nuclear safety, John McCann, on being questioned by Westchester County's Environmental and Energy Committee: "It was the tsunami that washed away the tanks of fuel for the emergency generators and left the Japanese unable to keep the plant's reactors cooled. Indian Point has several sources of power and water that should preclude a similar situation there."
And the overreaction: Germany decided in late March 2011 to close down all its nuclear power stations in the light of the Fukushima catastrophe. This involved a "U turn" by many senior politicians, including the Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Nuclear energy, though, was never a very popular ingredient of the country's energy mix, especially since the Chernobyl reactor meltdown on 26 April 1986. This, the worst disaster in civilian nuclear energy's history, killed two people on the night of the accident and a further 28 from acute radiation poisoning within three months. Between 1987 and 2004, a further 19 died who had been fighting to control the blaze and meltdown of the plant and who had suffered from acute radiation syndrome at the time. It is thought likely that their exposure was a factor in their premature deaths.
Many Greens and environmentalists in Germany, want the closure to happen by 2020, a tall order considering that in 2010, nuclear power contributed 23 per cent of Germany's electricity generation. The country will find it difficult to maintain its green credentials when the figures for lignite's (brown coal) share was also 23 per cent and hard coal 18 per cent.
Hildegard Müller, head of BDEW (Federal Association of the Electricity and Water Industry) advocates an "open and unbiased debate" concerning all of Germany's energy source mix in the light of the still large share of fossil fuels that an industrial nation like Germany consumes.
Sound advice for us all Frau Müller!