Critic: Nuclear power risks greater than advertised

Arjun Makhijani says nuclear power proponents underestimate the risks and oversell its reliability.

Over the weekend I had the chance to sit down for breakfast with Arjun Makhijani, author of Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy.

Makhijani is also president and senior engineer at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) in Takoma Park, Md. He’s on a mini-Midwest tour this week to promote a new report on Minnesota’s renewable energy potential — more on that tomorrow — and attempt to throw some cold water on renewed nuclear energy interest in Iowa and Wisconsin.

IEER is a member of RE-AMP, which also funds Midwest Energy News.

Makhijani spoke Sunday in Des Moines and Iowa City. He’s in Madison today for a 12:30 pm press conference (State Capital room 300SE) about the need for new, post-Fukushima health and safety regulations.

The engineer’s main message on nuclear power is that its proponents underestimate the risk while overselling its reliability.

While some blamed the problems at Chernobyl on poor Communist design or regulations, Makhijani says the disaster at Fukushima should illustrate that the West isn’t immune to the risks of nuclear power.

The reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were designed in the United States, and they’re the most common type used in this country today. Fewer than 400 light water nuclear reactors have been built worldwide, and between Three Mile Island and Fukushima, four of them have had meltdowns before they turned 40 years old.

That puts the real-world odds of a meltdown at better than 1 in 100.

“The numbers show that the probability of an accident is not as low as advertised,” says Makhijani.

The issue of nuclear safety and earthquakes actually struck in Japan four years before the Fukushima tsunami. In July 2007, a 6.8 earthquake walloped the world’s largest nuclear plant, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station in west-central Japan. The facility generates up to 8,212 megawatts of power for Tokyo Electric customers.

As far as scientists and inspectors can tell, the 2007 earthquake didn’t cause any serious damage to Kashiwazaki-Kariwa’s seven reactors, but it’s taken them years to try to verify that. The plant was completely closed for nearly two years as workers checked its critical infrastructure for cracks and other damage. Today, the plant is shut down again for a new round of post-Fukushima inspections.

This is Makhijani’s main anecdote about the reliability of nuclear as baseload power; that without inflicting any apparent damage to Kashiwazaki-Kariwa’s reactors, these natural disasters have still managed to keep the power plant offline for years, straining the country’s electricity grid as it copes without one of its major generation sources.

“Nuclear is 24/7, until it is zero over 365,” he says. “The probability of zero-over-365 is not large, but if it happens to you, you are out of luck.”

Check back tomorrow on the Highwire blog for more of my conversation with Makhijani about a new IEER report on Minnesota’s renewable electricity potential.

Dan Haugen is an Energy Journalism Fellow at Midwest Energy News. Contact him at dan@danhaugen.com.

2 thoughts on “Critic: Nuclear power risks greater than advertised

  1. Nonsense. The odds of a meltdown are only 100 to one if you have 50 foot tsunamis or a weird reactor like the one Chornobyl.
    OUr 104 reactors provide reliable low cost power night and day, rain or shine, wind or calm. We need another 100 of them.

  2. To clarify, Rolf: the four light water reactor meltdowns Makhijani is referring to do not include Chernobyl, which was a different type. He counts one reactor at Three Mile Island and three reactors at Fukushima.