Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Nuclear Unclear

When you think of the underlying conflict between Iran and a good chunk of the rest of the world, there is this subtle set of undertones that complicate the matter. Iran, if they could speak honestly: “Why do you, United States, get to have nuclear weapons and think you have the right to keep others from doing exactly what you have done? And remember, America, you are the only country on earth to have deployed such weapons directly against an enemy!” Yeah, but we haven’t threatened preemptively to blow another country out of existence. “We, like you, want to have our own peaceful, nuclear electrical power generating plants to bolster our own productivity.” Yeah, but (i) you have more than enough fossil fuel to generate pretty much whatever you want or need and (ii) you are creating weapons-grade fissionable material that is completely unnecessary for bona fide power generation.
We don’t trust them. They don’t trust us. I got it. I don’t like this situation any more than the greatest skeptic in Congress, but sanctions haven’t remotely worked – if anything living with and accepting a harsh life under sanctions has been viewed by the Iranian government as its own people’s commitment to their leaders (and attempt to reject that stance is likely to produce nasty local responses for the protestors) – and the military alternative would be a whole lot messier than anyone can imagine.
Sleeper cells everywhere would be activated, even here. The Strait of Hormuz would be heavily mined, stopping the flow of oil to most of Europe. Russia would smile with its own massive oil reserves suddenly flying through the stratosphere dollar-wise, ready to finance Putin’s anti-Western dreams. Economic disruption and high oil prices could reignite another global mega-recession. And while Iran’s nuclear program would be hit, it has been so widely spread about the country, with very deep underground facilities, that it would be only temporarily impaired. Oh, and ISIS would probably have to declare a holiday to celebrate a major crippling of its greatest regional enemy, while raising the price of their most valuable commodity. They would clearly be invigorated to expand their attacks.  
(i) Treaty, (ii) sanctions that have never worked (pretty much guaranteeing that Iran will soon have nuclear weapons) or (iii) the above military scenario. Pick one. Well, the world itself may have already “picked one,” with neutral Switzerland already announcing its support for the negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran by immediately lifting sanctions against that rogue nation, an effort that opens some pretty major banking benefits to Tehran. Even if the U.S. rejects the treaty, there are enough nations in the world unlikely stand behind the U.S. in maintaining the sanctions in light of the general global approval of the accord and America’s participation in generating it.
But there are even more global questions about even peaceful nuclear power everywhere. On the one hand, sustained lower oil prices (like for the foreseeable future) have discouraged folks from the kind of alternative energy building surge that the planet truly needs to stem the obviously super-destructive impact of global warming that rages around the world daily. On the other, the United States, using its chemical fracking technology, is less dependent on petroleum imports than it has been since the 1960s. But nuclear power generation is a controversial matter that just won’t go away.
The 1979 partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant and 1986 full meltdown at the Chernobyl, occurring during the Soviet era, weren’t enough of a global wake up call. The notion of nuclear power generation has only been particularly controversial since the 2011 earthquake/tsunami-induced full meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Germany began shutting down its nuclear plants almost as fast as did Japan.
The Japanese handed the disaster to the stumbling and bumbling of a totally inept Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA – part of METI – the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the cabinet agency charged with economic growth). They had no plan, no path to contain and shut off the leaking reactors, and were forced to scour the earth to identify experts who could. It didn’t help that nuclear power facilities in Japan were held by different companies with vastly differing command, control and safety systems. All this in one of the most earthquake-prone countries on earth, a nation whose very geography is wrapped around tectonic plates in one of the most volatile parts of the Pacific Rim’s notorious Ring of Fire.
Fukushima and the surrounding area remain an uninhabited wasteland, destined to stay that way for thousands of years. Contaminated debris has washed up on distant shores, including our own Pacific Northwest. Industrialized Japan, symbolized by the glitz and glitter of a neon-lighted Ginza in Tokyo, was instantly slammed with an electrical power reduction of 30%. Power prices have increased by 20%. Since 2013, none of Japan’s 48 nuclear power plants have been operational. Japan shifted heavily to subsidize and encourage non-nuclear/non-100%-imported fossil fuel alternatives, but the reaction simply was insufficient to resurrect an economy that so was desperately dependent on massive available electrical power.
The Japanese government has struggled with how to bridge the gap between power supply and demand. Despite popular opposition, they have long recognized that some if not most of those idle reactors would have to be restarted to slake the nation’s power thirst. They had to deal with how to restart plants that have been shut down for four years. Normal plants shut down for a few months every two years for refueling (and to dispose of dangerous spent fuel rods) and every ten years for major updating and repair.
It’s anything but clear that Japan has these issues under control. NISI has evolved, been semi-replaced and rebuilt away from METI into a new Nuclear Regulatory Authority, now under the Ministry of the Environment. The issue of diverse ownership and varying standards of the existing plants has been addressed (national standards have toughened), perhaps only partially, but no one is sure the necessary issues have been solved. Inspectors and regulators have been all over the remaining plants.
So on August 11th, Japan took its first step to restoring its nuclear-power-generating capacity, as “the country took what appeared to be a decisive step toward resurrecting the nuclear industry and ending a de facto freeze on the use of atomic power, as an electric utility restarted one of dozens of reactors that were taken offline after the Fukushima disaster… The reactor at the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant [pictured above], in Kagoshima Prefecture, was the first to return to service since government regulators introduced upgraded safety standards two years ago.” New York Times, August 11th.
With doom-sayers (including former PM Naoto Kan) and under 200 protestors, the nuclear power program was back on, with current PM Shinzo Abe insisting that there was no other way to supply Japan’s power needs and resurrect a moribund economy. Surveys suggest that most Japanese favor keeping the power plants shuttered; they’ve adjusted to the higher energy prices and don’t trust the risks of nuclear power. Japan’s business community had other plans, and they have prevailed.
Germany’s story is very much predicated on the Fukushima disaster in Japan: “Within days of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, large anti-nuclear protests occurred in Germany. Protests continued and, on 29 May 2011, Merkel's government announced that it would close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. Eight of the seventeen operating reactors in Germany were permanently shut down following Fukushima.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the nuclear power phase-out, previously scheduled to go offline as late as 2036, would give Germany a competitive advantage in the renewable energy era, stating, ‘As the first big industrialized nation, we can achieve such a transformation toward efficient and renewable energies, with all the opportunities that brings for exports, developing new technologies and jobs.’ Merkel also pointed to Japan's ‘helplessness’ – despite being an industrialized, technologically advanced nation – in the face of its nuclear disaster.
“In September 2011, German engineering giant Siemens announced a complete withdrawal from the nuclear industry, as a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Remaining nuclear companies in Germany are E.ON Kernkraft GmbH, Vattenfall Europe Nuclear Energy GmbH, RWE Power AG, and EnBW Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG.” Wikipedia. But Germany also has been feeling the power demand curve pressure and is constantly looking at the viability of keeping some nuclear plants online.
We grapple with the demands of modern industrialization, climate change and some very serious contamination risks that no one is sure will go away. Japan is an island with no local fossil fuels and really heavy energy needs; it just gave up looking for alternatives despite local sentiments. Germany is also warily eyeing hostile Russia as a likely growing source of near-term fossil fuel-generated power. Nuclear power would curtail that ugly dependence.
What’s our longer-term strategy? Can a president remotely counter a Congress and a litigious business community that opposes fossil fuel restrictions without reemphasizing nuclear power as the go-to alternative? How do you feel the United States will fare with its own energy programs (or lack thereof)? Can conservation and more efficient fuel usage in general solve the problem without massive new power sources being brought on line?
I’m Peter Dekom, and we have a very long way to go to create a sustainable balance between our need for energy vs the environmental risks we are still taking.

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