Geoffrey Sea’s Nuclear Bulletin #9 – Lucky Island

I have not seen this mentioned, but “fuku” in Japanese means luck or good fortune. “Shima” means island, so Fukushima means ‘lucky island’. The mavens of ancient prophecy will be confounded by that one.

The Christian Science Monitor has a good article out today on corruption behind the calamity at Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis – Among the revelations are that TEPCO was previously found to be falsifying safety data, and cut corners on spacing of spent fuel in order to cut costs.
The New York Times has begun coverage of the worker drama at Workers at Fukushima Plant Brave Radiation and Fire – They report “an increasing proportion of soldiers” assigned to work at the plant. That hints at the most interesting question, which is how many workers have either abandoned the plant or failed to report for shifts. The number has to be large and obviously TEPCO wants to suppress that information, but ultimately it will be known and will counterbalance the reflexive “hero” stories.
Wall Street has declared the “Nuclear Renaissance” over. I always thought “Renaissance” was an odd choice of terms since the actual Renaissance was a period of throwback, brutality, inquisition and torture.  Enlightenment was the thing to shoot for, but alas, the nuclear industry never approached it.
The investment community – as distinct from the industry – appears to be signaling to the government that enough is enough.  Whether that message is sinking in is unclear. The US Surgeon General has proclaimed that buying iodine pills would be a good idea for most people, but the Administration has yet to signal that it has a clue.
Perhaps and hopefully the inner wheels are moving. It would make a lot of sense to cancel the loan guarantee program, since that is also a budget drain and the Republicans could be called on their budget consciousness. Continuing such a loan program when the stars, the Tarot cards, and all the fish in the sea are shouting stop would be sheer madness. And it’s unclear whether the base of the Democratic Party would stand for it. But in recent days Obama has been golfing and gearing up his re-election campaign – using nuclear loans as a platform. Yet more evidence that Earth was secretly switched with Planet Bizarro.
The reason for slowness, I surmise, is that once the Administration pulls back, the last nail is in the industry’s coffin.  Nuclear futures were marginal and iffy before Fukushima. This is an industry unusually dependent on both government subsidy and economies of scale.  Specifically, the industry needed the government to: (a) refrain from imposing any more safety-related costs, (b) speed up licensing and loan processing, (c) give official projections of wild nuclear expansion in order to dupe investors, and (d) maintain low limits on private liability.
But now the only possible response to the disaster in Japan is to say that safety costs will increase, licensing will be more intensely reviewed, liability limits will be raised, and growth projections will be radically cut. That’s not even factoring in the closure of operating plants that are unsafe.
In that environment, the nuclear industry as constituted cannot function, much less survive long-term. Profit margins are too low and speculative, costs and risks too high.  If costs cannot be spread over dozens of new plants in the pipeline then the unit costs skyrocket and no new plants can be built. That applies to both reactors and fuel facilities. So the economics scream shutdown. Nuclear power cannot be done small.
Somebody someplace in the US government must realize this. But then, some of these same people thought that privatizing Conrail was a good idea.
— 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