Demystifying Nuclear Power: Coast-to-Coast Reflections and Summer FAQs

 by Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer

I am writing this blog post after drinking my fourth cup of coffee this morning.  I was up from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. EST for a Coast-to-Coast radio interview Monday, July 27, 2015.  Auggggg – early morning work on the East Coast is tough afterwards, but it was certainly worth it! As a returning guest on Coast-to-Coast radio, I was fortunate to be interviewed by radio host George Knapp; we shared two hours of smart conversation and thoughtful questions from an inquisitive audience.  Thanks C2C! Since the show aired, Fairewinds Energy Education has had thousands of new visitors to the site, and dozens of questions via email. 

We at Fairewinds decided to use this opportunity to address some of the key areas people are asking about post C2C.  Some of these questions were answered in full on other portions of the show, and some we only briefly mentioned.  Other questions raised have been discussed and/or answered on Fairewinds site via video, podcast, or FAQs (frequently asked questions).

 1. New Nuclear Alternatives:  The nuclear industry always has new nuclear reactor concepts to promote the ongoing operation of nuclear power.  Many of these nuclear reactor concepts are simply not feasible for economic or environmental reasons. As George Knapp and I discussed on C2C, neither of us is anti-nuclear, but we are interested in making sure the world’s finances are not spent on expensive untested ventures that cannot deliver consumers’ power needs quickly or economically. 

Whether it is small modular reactors, thorium reactors, molten salt reactors, or other new designs, all these designs have two things in common.  No one knows how much these ideas on paper would ultimately cost or how many decades it would take for these technologies to produce significant amounts of power.  As I said in my recent speech at Northwestern University that was quoted in Forbes Magazine:

 “The operative word in this discussion tonight is now. What are we going to do now to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere? … These things can be implemented immediately. We know how to insulate a building. We know how to put double and triple-pane windows in them. We know how to build windmills and put solar cells up. These are immediate things. We don’t have to invest $50 trillion and wait 15 years for that to come to fruition.” 

Recently, my friend and fellow Vermonter Peter Bradford eloquently said,

“Wall Street doesn’t want (reactors), the utilities don’t want them…Trying to solve climate change with nuclear is like trying to solve world hunger with caviar.”

2. Ocean Contamination:  Nuclear fuel from the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi is in direct contact with groundwater and will continue to bleed into the Pacific for decades.  Near Fukushima, I would not swim in the Pacific. These radioactive plumes are more diluted by the time they reach the United States, so right now I believe it is safe to swim along the western U.S. coast.  However, bioaccumulation in animals in the food chain is an entirely different major concern.  The federal governments of Canada, Mexico, and the US, coastline provinces and states, and independent labs should test fish to let the public know what concentration of radioactivity is present in its food.  As citizens in democratic countries, we have a right to know what is in our food; we must be informed consumers.  Until this information is available, I have made the choice not to eat fish caught in the northern Pacific. 

3. Downstream:  The reality is that Fukushima Daiichi is leaking into the Pacific Ocean.  What if a similar disaster were to happen on the Rhine, Mississippi, or Danube Rivers, or the Great Lakes.  Commerce and drinking water for a large part of a continent would come to a halt. Chaos and economic calamity would ensue. As I have said before, nuclear power is a unique technology that has the capability to destroy the fabric of society overnight.  See Downstream LINK for more details.

4. Earthquakes & Seismic Activity:  The Biggest Earthquake ever last hit the Pacific Coast during the 1600s, well before written historical records, and it did not involve the San Andreas Fault.  A much larger seismic fault that stretches from Canada down into California is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and it could produce a quake 100 times more powerful that the one that devastated the city of San Francisco 100 years ago.  Not discovered until long after nuclear power plants were constructed in California and Washington State, the Cascadia Subduction Zone is located where one major tectonic plate slides underneath another.  In the July 20 issue of The New Yorker entitled The Really Big Onecontributor Kathryn Schulz writes that “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when” in her discussion of the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

The consequences of a Cascadian Earthquake would be devastating according to Schulz, who writes:
“When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater.”