Japan’s nuclear situation turned from bad to worse last night. A component of the containment structure at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 2 reportedly cracked. Operators should be able to manage the situation if they can keep the core covered in water. Unfortunately, that has proved to be no easy task.
Based on the best available information, the tsunami wiped out the backup generators needed to pump water, and the backup batteries weren’t powerful enough to get the job done. Then, it seems, they lost access to the large amounts of water needed to keep the reactor cool. Operators have had to improvise, bringing in backup generators and pumping in seawater. Yesterday, the difficulty in pumping water to cool the reactor was less of a concern (albeit a very serious problem) because the probability of exposure to harmful levels of radiation was low. But if any part of the containment structure has indeed cracked, this creates a situation where the reactor could release dangerous levels of radiation.
But that doesn’t mean wide exposure to radiation is imminent or inevitable. Despite a massive earthquake, a tsunami, a loss of power, and several explosions, the robust nature of even a first-generation nuclear plant — combined with the brave on-site work of its operators — may be enough to protect the surrounding environment. Commentators keep evoking memories of Chernobyl, where 50 people — mostly rescue workers — tragically lost their lives. It is estimated that up to 4,000 fatalities may ultimately be attributed to Chernobyl-related cancers. But comparing Chernobyl to whatever happens in Japan is not only premature, but inappropriate. Chernobyl had no substantial containment system in place, employed a completely different technology, and was manned by poorly trained operators.
Today, the focus in Japan must be solely on minimizing the public-health and safety effects arising from the earthquake, the tsunami, and whatever develops at the reactors. But whatever the outcome of the “perfect storm” of disasters that has befallen Japan, it should not result in near-term policy decisions that cause another 35-year nuclear freeze in the United States.
Unfortunately, politicians’ ears perk up and they race to the microphone whenever they see the word “crisis” in headlines. Rep. Edward Markey (D., Mass.) released a statement Saturday comparing the current situation in Japan to Chernobyl and called on the Obama administration to impose a moratorium on all new nuclear reactors. Sen, Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) wants to apply the brakes as well. Before knowing the outcome and understanding what went wrong and why, any move to stop new nuclear power plants from coming online in the U.S. would be hasty and unwise.
U.S. policymakers should hold off on making any policy changes, in order to ensure that any changes are rooted firmly in lessons learned. That’s how they handled the Three Mile Island incident. Careful study of Three Mile Island brought about improved safety protocols, the development of new safety organizations, and technological developments that continue to keep American nuclear power safe. While the compromise of the containment-structure component should reverberate throughout the nuclear community, we must not assume that a flaw with that reactor necessarily means that the underlying technology of nuclear power is flawed. It makes no sense to offer solutions unless we first understand the problem.
— Jack Spencer is the Heritage Foundation’s research fellow in nuclear-energy policy. Nick Loris is an energy-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.