Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletin #12 – The Management Problem

17 iii 11, 5:45 PM GMT—I’d like to step back and talk about the aspect of Fukushima so far escaping attention, and that can be called the Management Problem.

Apparently it has seemed to some as if I have been downplaying the effects, because I have said consistently that the geographic long-range consequences will be far less than Chernobyl. I stick to that assessment, even if the spent fuel melts down, and even if cracks widen in the containment vessels. In Japan 2011, as opposed to Ukraine in 1986, there is enough time for authorities to adopt fallback measures to stop massive cesium plumes. They can drop a million sand bags if they need to.

That is not to downplay the catastrophe, but only to say the catastrophe is different. The local impact will be even worse than Chernobyl in my estimation. That’s partly because the population density is greater and partly because the initial success at containment kept a lot more radioactivity bottled up at the site than at Chernobyl, where much was dispersed to the winds.

In quantity casualty terms, this may seem less significant. If there are 100 worker and 100 nearby resident deaths at Fukushima (I’m pulling these numbers from my hat), that will pale in comparison to the many thousands of deaths caused by Chernobyl, or the 12,000 deaths caused by the earthquake and tsunami so far.

But qualitatively there is an enormous difference. From Fukushima will emerge hellish stories of workers and soldiers being ordered to engage in suicide missions, of lingering radiation sickness blasted across the web, of workers fleeing their place of employment, of cowardly managers who would not accept the risks themselves.

After that it will be extremely difficult to manage any nuclear operation. Everything becomes harder — recruitment, contract negotiation, skills retention, training, siting, community relations. The nuclear companies are already anticipating this nightmare, quite apart from the market downturn issues. Managers will have to look employees in the face and explain what happened in Japan.

This is the problem that is also causing the smart class of investors to declare the nuclear Renaissance over. They see the Management Problem ahead, and it has no easy solution. It is irrespective of plant design. Simply put, no one will want to run a nuclear facility after the publicity that emerges from Japan.

Politicians may still hope for big nuclear projects as jobs bonanzas, but it will be a tough sell without private financing. Public opinion polls show a rapid 20% drop in support for nuclear power in the USA, from majority to minority. The Obama Administration dragging its feet on cancellation of the loan guarantee program is just dumb.

Certainly some nuclear projects will continue and some plants will continue in operation. New engineering will be funded because engineering is quite safe. New plants that get completed and put in operation, however, will not happen, and they will not happen because the investors will run. Only government funded R&D will limp along.

–Geoffrey Sea

Geoffrey Sea holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Science from Harvard. He did graduate work in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and in radiological health physics at San Jose State University. He is co-founder of Southern Ohio Neighbors Group, which successfully defeated plans for the centralized storage of spent nuclear fuel at Piketon, Ohio. He has published in the American Scholar, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and many newspapers. He can be contacted via email at SargentsPigeon@aol.com