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Logical Meltdown


Geoscientist 21.04 May 2011

As our feature this month neatly illustrates, sources of energy – especially new or unfamiliar ones – can also become sources of endless angst in an age that takes power for granted and is unaware of the far greater evil that is not having enough of it.

Thus, one could be forgiven for thinking that the main news story in recent months has not been the death of tens of thousands of people in the worst earthquake and tsunami to hit Japan in its long and disaster-strewn history, but a relatively minor leakage of radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear plant. This ludicrous distortion might be blackly comic, were it not for the fact that - just as happened after the (completely non-lethal) 1978 Three Mile Island “disaster” - the work of building a global nuclear capability to help us meet the much greater evils that face us (a looming energy gap, global warming) will now be stymied by the two most powerful forces in human nature - ignorance and hysteria.

The reactors at Fukushima shut down, as they were supposed to, when the earthquake struck. But reactors, and the ponds containing their recently-removed spent fuel, still need cooling; so when the electricity grid failed (because so many other plants did likewise) diesel generators kept the water flowing. Until, that is, the tsunami took their fuel tanks out. These could have been engineered to withstand a 10 metre-high wall of water, but weren’t.

Fukushima shows us that adequate civil engineering in the face even of tsunamis is eminently possible – as long as we fully understand what the Earth can do, and it is geologists’ job to explain that to engineers. Second, it demonstrates the urgent need to create properly engineered underground repositories.

Storing spent fuel on site, as happens at many nuclear facilities worldwide, turns them into potential “dirty bombs” – a situation that has been exacerbated by decades of dithering over geological containment. This delay has been cynically fomented by some environmental groups, who know well that the longer waste remains an issue, the longer it remains ammunition in their ill-advised war against the single best hope we all have of plugging the energy gap and cutting CO2 emissions – namely, nuclear power. For surely, the belief that with current technology, and a bit of economy, “renewables” could somehow fuel an industrialised nation on a combination of sunshine and wind, is surely moonshine and hot air.