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How Japan's Atomic Emergency Should Inform Our Nuclear-Powered Future

nuclear plant

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan this week didn't just trigger a massive tsunami. It also caused an atomic-power emergency at the the Fukushima No. 1 plant in Fukushima Prefecture, where 3,000 people in a two-mile radius around the plant were forced to evacuate due to an overheated reactor. It's a black mark for nuclear-power advocates the world over—and confirmation to the anti-nuclear camp that nuclear energy can be a dangerous beast. The question is: Can we prevent this kind of disaster from happening again?

The problem with the Fukushima plant is the direct result of a 40-year-old, poorly designed nuclear core containment device, claims Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste expert at Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear group. The Japanese did retrofit the containment structures with ventilation systems to prevent pressure buildup, but when the vents release steam and pressure, they also release radioactivity. This is happening now, according to the Los Angeles Times, as Japan releases what it calls "slightly radioactive" vapor from the plant. Japan's nuclear safety agency has said it won't cause a threat to people's health.

It is possible to design earthquake-proof nuclear plants—for a price. New reactors in the U.S cost upwards of $15 billion, and adding the thick concrete and strong rebar necessary to withstand an 8.9-plus magnitude earthquake could tack on at least another billion dollars, estimates Kamps.

It's hard to say if any currently operating nuclear plants—or even plants in the pipeline—could buck disaster in a scenario like Japan's. The most popular new reactor design in the U.S, the Toshiba Westinghouse AP1000, is supposed to be able to withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, and even crashing airliners. But John S. Ma, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), suggests that may not be the case because materials used in construction are too brittle. "It has not been demonstrated that the building can absorb and dissipate energy imparted on the structure by an impact or a seismic event," he claimed in a statement. Nevertheless, the design is moving toward NRC approval, and 24 units have been ordered already in the U.S.

The Japan disaster might hamper Congress's rumored plans in the days and weeks to come to launch a nuclear power push. "It's ironic timing," says Kamps. At the very least, Japan's disaster should serve as a warning: natural disasters cannot be underestimated when designing nuclear structures.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

Read more coverage of the Japan earthquake.

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  • joel arula

    Belarus national cancer statistics, predicts that approximately 270,000 cancers and 93,000 fatal cancer cases caused byChernobyl. The report also concludes that on the basis of demographicdata, during the last 15 years, 60,000 people have additionally died inRussia because of the Chernobyl accident, and estimates of the total death toll for the Ukraine and Belarus could reach another 140,000.

  • JamesFogal

    What happened was not good in Japan but we cannot look at accidents that happpen under the worst conditions and say we should pull the plug on Nuclear. If we are to reduce the amount of coal used in this country then nuclear is the clear winner. The nuclear waste that comes out of those plants is also remanufactured and used over and over again. These whiners that keep saying that we are just stockpiling nuclear waste do not realize how much of it is actually reprocessed. We need nuclear now. What happened in Japan is unfortunalte. Whats going on the Middle East has gone on forever. Soon oil may trickle to a halt and we better have all the nuclear power we can get. Solar and Wind are becoming more viable but just are not there yet. Nuclear is here today. I hope Missouri adds another to the St. Louis market soon. If not they will need to add one more coal buring facility to help with capacity during the summer. AmerenUE is dedicated to bringing that plant online if they can just get past the government hurdles. We need to act soon. We are only on big meltdown in Middle East, and I am not talking nuclear and then we are gonna see nuclear bombs start dropping in those coutries and there will be no oil coming of them for thousands of years. The future for nuclear was yesterday. We need to get going. We are behiind. When wind and solar actually push their cost below nuclear you will see a significant move in that are but that is simply not today. Nuclear is the only option that halfway competes with coal and coal is cheap. Its like buring dirt. I have an order for a Nissan Leaf and I am committed to the total electric concept. We gotta move a lot of resources there now and today Nuclear is that option. I would love to see the day we never bought another barrel of forgeign oil.

  • Patrik D'haeseleer

    And yet, nobody is talking about the fact that a Dow chemical plant got completely flooded by the tsunami. We're so laissez-faire when it comes to chemicals, yet we freak out whenever someone mentions nuclear.

    Bhopal disaster: ~15,000 deaths, plus more than half a million injured
    Chernobyl disaster: ~50 deaths, 237 radiation sickness, ~4000 cancer cases

    Guess which one is remembered more?

  • Stuart Bogue

    Patrik, Your point is well taken. However,the longterm damage done by Nuclear accident cannot be compared. There is no clean up....whether it be from an accident or simply the residue of the ocess,nuclear waste/contamination is forever.Even the newest hopes for safe process create waste that lasts for hundreds of years. Nuclear is just one more attempt to tether us to the grid.It is hell on earth.....