As Southern California weighs the fate of the crippled San Onofre nuclear plant, the former prime minister who led Japan through the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster delivered a warning Tuesday in San Diego that the true dangers and costs of nuclear power have not been addressed. Since stepping down as prime minister in August 2011, Naoto Kan has evolved into an advocate for renewable energy. He wants to foster a worldwide public discussion about the ultimate costs of nuclear power, as atomic know-how is exported from Japan and the U.S. to nations like Turkey, India and China that are rapidly expanding their reactor fleets.
Kan said his appearance at a nuclear safety seminar in downtown San Diego, alongside former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Gregory Jaczko, was aimed at building that conversation “network.”
“Even I was among those promoting the export of this technology,” he said. “But right now I am terribly embarrassed about this.”
Kan argued that the economic case for nuclear power around the world fails to fully account for nuclear accidents on the scale of Fukushima Daiichi or the generations-long stewardship of nuclear waste.
“When accidents happen the impacts are huge and it’s not just that risk that we need to think about, it’s the economic devastation,” said Kan, when asked about his advice for Southern California. “Electric companies discuss the economic merits of nuclear power, however, these economic merits are primarily the electric company’s economic merits.”
Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory commission until July 2012, said he stood by his insistence as a regulator that Fukushima lessons be incorporated into U.S. procedures and designs before new plants are constructed in the southeastern United States. New reactors were approved over Jaczko’s objection.
Delving into the San Onofre outage, he said a “novel” approach to restarting the plant by Southern California Edison still makes him wary that the generator problems are not completely understood.
“Just looking at this as a kind of outsider now, the approach that is being taken is not one that instills tremendous confidence,” Jaczko told a capacity crowd of about 100 in the downtown chambers of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.
Edison has proposed restarting one of two San Onofre reactors at partial power in an effort to contain damaging vibrations among steam generator tubes carrying radioactive water.
“In principle what you should see is design modifications and changes that allow operation at the licensed power levels,” Jaczko said. “When you’re operating at reduced power levels that indicates that there are still areas of challenge with those steam generators operating at higher power rates.
“It would create doubt in my mind that there’s a complete understanding of all the phenomenon that are in play here and what the impact would be,” he said.
Jaczko prefaced his comments with the acknowledgement that he has not closely followed events at San Onofre since leaving the nuclear commission. He toured the facility and met directly with Edison officials in the months after the plant shutdown on Jan. 31, 2012.
Ongoing efforts to restart the plant have been overshadowed by allegations that Edison may have misled regulators about the extent of design changes to replacement generators installed starting in 2009 in order to avoid a more thorough review. Edison says it did not install generators that it believed to be unsafe or unreliable.
Jaczko said a more thorough regulatory review under license amendment procedures might have caught design flaws. He said the San Onofre generators went beyond the original intent of the commissions prior approval process — regulations that may need to be reconsidered for such large equipment.
“A major modification like this is not what really is intended,” he said.
Other panelists at the seminar included Peter Bradford, an attorney who sat on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in 1979, and Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear consultant. Gundersen’s analysis of design changes to the San Onofre generators has provided the underpinning for regulatory challenges by Friends of the Earth.
The seminar offered no counterpoint from the nuclear industry. The Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying arm of the U.S. industry, sent out Tweets during the meeting with reminders that Jaczko vouched for the safety of the U.S. reactor fleet before Congress in 2011.
In a statement, Edison said it was committed to learning from the Fukushima Daiichi accident, but that it was important to remember that San Onofre has a different design and seismic profile.
Kan recalled in vivid detail, meanwhile, the March 11 earthquake that shook a giant overhead chandelier in Japan’s parliament as if it were a wind chime.
In the following days, Japan confronted a catastrophe that Kan likened to the ravages of war, as fuel melted through three reactors, sparking hydrogen explosions and mass evacuations were ordered amid other devastation from the quake and tsunami. Some 160,000 remain displaced from their homes.
Once a faithful ally of nuclear power, Kan described how his thinking rotated 180-degrees.
“We have created a situation where we are standing on a precipice,” Kan said. “Will we be able to survive?”
Source: UT San Diego