Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletin #14 – The Concentration Paradox

The New Republic carries a good article exposing some of the background on how Japan overcame public resistance to site the Fukushima reactors: How The Japanese Government Manipulated Commercial Nuclear Power. | The New Republic What the article suggests but doesn’t quite say is that the madness of putting six reactor units plus spent fuel storage pools all at one location is a direct product of the native resistance to nuclear power in Japan after 1945.

This is the Catch-22 that the industry will now confront. The principal “lesson learned” from this accident is that you cannot concentrate so many nuclear operations at any single site. If there is such a thing as “safe” nuclear power, it would involve spreading out small reactors at single unit locations, closer to points of end use, with separate sites for spent fuel storage.

However, that option has been politically impossible in any of the major countries except for France, which has a very centralized decision-making structure in general. The only way to obtain amenable sites for reactors in places like the USA and Germany has been to concentrate the facilities, so that a large-scale bribe of many hundreds of jobs can be offered to local unions and chambers of commerce. Spreading facilities out will not offer sufficient incentive compared to the added risk and local opposition. Plus, it’s simply hard to find many sites that have necessary access to water and power, and that are far enough away from large cities, earthquake faults, and other natural disaster zones.

Of course, this problem will intensify after Fukushima, where the US and Australia have established a prophylactic 50-mile evacuation zone for their citizens. If every new reactor site must be isolated by a 50-mile zone, that eliminates virtually all sites now under consideration. Only some areas in the remote southwestern desert could qualify in the USA, and they are far from power grids.

So this paradox lacks possibility of resolution. The principal lesson learned will directly contradict the siting requirement for the industry to expand, or even remain stable. Off-site storage of spent nuclear fuel will require that 104 new sites for SNF storage be found in the US immediately. And as we found in Ohio in 2006, even very pro-nuclear communities oppose becoming storage or disposal sites for SNF.

The industry has developed and refined strategies for siting plants and overcoming local opposition. I once was treated to a private showing of a presentation by Battelle about their expert services specifically in that field. (They misunderstood my affiliation.) But all of these techniques rely on the ability to concentrate the nasty stuff at single sites where opposition can be swamped by union and business pressure.

Concentration will not be possible from here on out.

That will be the main legacy of Fukushima in terms of the industry. It has little or nothing to do with health effects of the radiation.

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