Four years after Fukushima, Japan returns to nuclear power generation

By Steve Brachmann
August 22, 2015

Nuclear JapanNear the middle of August, a nuclear power plant operated by Kyushu Electric Power in the Japanese city of Sendai restarted its reactors to produce electricity once more for the country’s electrical grid. The move is significant because it is the first of 25 nuclear power plants in Japan to restart after applying to reopen since the 2011 explosion of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the world’s most recent nuclear disaster.

There have understandably been some mixed reactions to the decision. Areas around the Fukushima Daiichi plant are still so heavily contaminated with radiation that there are many of the 160,000 people originally evacuated from the region who still cannot return. Related protests have occurred at both the residence of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Sendai power plant itself. To make matters worse, volcanic activity has been detected in a region 30 miles away from the Sendai plant, although plant officials note that plant modifications would allow it to withstand a major event.

So why is a country that is still suffering from a nuclear nightmare so willing to delve back into a form of electrical energy generation that many across the globe are quick to loathe? One of the big problems for Japan is the issue of energy security to provide the electricity needed to keep society moving in a developed country. 48 commercial nuclear reactors in the country were shuttered after the 2011 tragedy and new ones that reopen must meet exacting safety standards introduced by the Japanese government in June 2013 which set stringent guidelines for tsunami protection and emergency command centers set up to deal with any developing issues. The move away from nuclear power over the past few years has been tough on Japan, forcing them to increase carbon dioxide emissions and increase energy imports due to the country’s limited domestic resources. When a lot of people need access to clean energy quickly, the prospects of nuclear power make much more sense.

Few areas of science and technology have been both so universally loved and then feared as nuclear power has experienced over the course of its existence. Right on the heels of the end of World War II, the McMahon Act, passed in 1946, established the Atomic Energy Commission whose job it was to tap the seemingly limitless potential of atomic energy. Yet major nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 flipped the narrative on nuclear power in just a few years’ time. To many, the chance of either of these events ever repeating themselves makes the discussion of increasing our society’s reliance on nuclear energy a complete non-starter.

We’re keen on covering a wide range of environmental issues here on IPWatchdog. Although we’ve noted some troubling inconsistencies with the current science behind climate change that has turned increasingly political, we’ve taken a good hard look at the current research and development in fields like solar energy collection, alternatively powered vehicles and even green aviation technologies to see the actual ways in which environmental issues are being addressed. With nuclear power returning to Japan a few short years after its own major nuclear event, we wanted to ponder the question of whether nuclear power could help wean us from fossil fuels more quickly than solar, wind or other forms of energy. If we want to stop using forms of energy that pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, don’t we deserve to give nuclear power some closer consideration?

One fact that might help ease any wary readers who feel that the U.S. shouldn’t tangle with the nuclear monster is that the country’s electrical grid continues to draw power from nuclear reactors. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are 99 nuclear power reactors licensed to operate in this country, the vast majority found in the eastern part of the United States. It might come as a surprise to some that Three Mile Island continues to produce power, up to 2,568 megawatts of thermal power (MWt) on a license extending to 2034. America actually produces nearly a third of the world’s total nuclear energy and in 2013, nearly one-fifth of our country’s energy profile was nuclear.

In the 1960s, nearly two decades after scientists at the University of Chicago were able to create the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, nuclear power plant production took off in the U.S. and by 1991, America was home to one-fourth of the world’s total number of nuclear power plants. In that year, nuclear energy supplied about 22 percent of the nation’s electricity. Although the development of new nuclear power plants has been very stagnant in America over the past few decades, the World Nuclear Association reports that at least a few new reactors could start supplying the electrical grid by 2020.

Much like electricity generating systems utilizing fossil fuels, nuclear power reactors use heat to turn water into steam which turns a generator to create the electricity that travels to our homes and places of work. The way that a nuclear reactor creates heat, however, isn’t through combustion but a process known as fission, where heat is generated by the energy created when many atoms are split in a chain reaction. Uranium is supplied to the reactor as a series of pellets, which contain about 3 percent uranium-235 encased in ceramic, made to form a fuel rod. Uranium is able to produce a great deal of energy through fission because it has a very heavy nucleus relative to most elements. The chain reaction starts when a loose neutron collides with a uranium nucleus, specifically U-235 which has 235 neutrons, and creates enough instability in the nucleus that it splits. Other forms of uranium, such as U-238 and U-233, are useful to certain aspects of the fission process but it is U-235 that provides the perfect conditions necessary for a chain reaction.

Nuclear reactors are typically built in one of two ways, either as a pressurized water reactor (PWR) or as a boiling water reactor (BWR). In BWR applications, a chain reaction within a reactor heats up water until it boils, producing the steam needed to turn a steam generator. With PWR, water is still heated but under pressurized conditions which prevent it from boiling. Heat is transferred from the primary water tank to a secondary water supply, generating the heat necessary to power the generator.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about nuclear energy, especially during times like now when sustainability in energy is of such huge concern, is how little uranium is needed to produce the same energy as massive amounts of coal or other fossil fuels. The fission of one gram of uranium in a day produces a similar amount of energy as a power plant that burns 300 tons of coal or 600 gallons of fuel oil in that same day. At the world’s current rate of consumption it’s believed that the world has enough uranium resources to keep nuclear power going for 200 years. Also, the uranium-235 fission process creates a great deal of plutonium-239 when a stray neutron hits the aforementioned uranium-238 isotope during a chain reaction, and this plutonium-239 can be used or further refined as fuel for another nuclear reactor. So the nuclear fission process creates fuel for future nuclear fission. The same could not be said of coal or natural gas.

Nuclear activity in this country has been pretty dormant but according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there are applications in for nearly 20 new nuclear reactors at locations around the country. In the next few weeks we’ll explore what we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and how nuclear power can be implemented safely and appropriately to further reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and foreign energy supplies.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 5 Comments comments.

  1. ColinMegson August 22, 2015 2:19 pm

    “…and this plutonium-239 can be used or further refined as fuel for another nuclear reactor…”

    Over the pond, in the UK, we’ve got the world’s biggest stockpile of Pu-239 – 140 tonnes of it.

    One of the options for the disposition of this stockpile is the GE Hitachi PRISM Power Block, which will render the plutonium useless as a bomb making material. From the nuclear fuel it produces, it will chug away for a further 50 or 60 years generating 622 MW of emission-free electricity.

    This is a very worthwhile contribution to meeting the UK’s mandatory carbon targets and will contribute as much as 1000 x 2 MW wind turbines, which is about one-sixth of the UK’s wind turbine fleet.

    PRISM is a Gen IV reactor and is a scaled up version of EBR-II which successfully generated power for 30 years, before the ‘environmentalist’ lobby succeeded in pressuring Clinton to withdraw funding in 1994.

    An article about Gen IV reactors would not go amiss, Steve. You could mention:

    They are inherently safe – they shut down according to the laws of physics, without human intervention. Dozens of nuclear scientists and technologists put their money where their mouth is – they stood just a few feet away from the reactor core, operating at full power, when all electrics were switched off (Fukushima) and all safety systems disabled (TMI):
    https://vimeo.com/35261457

    They burn existing nuclear waste as fuel and we have enough of that on the planet to supply all of the energy humanity can use for hundreds of years – by then, fusion will be a reality, surely – won’t it?

    The waste stream they produce is just a tiny fraction of the fuel consumed and it decays to background radiation levels in only 300 years – easily, cheaply and safely stored.

    How about it?

  2. Russ Finley August 23, 2015 4:14 pm

    Steve says:

    “… since the 2011 explosion of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the world’s most recent nuclear disaster.”

    The explosions everybody saw on TV were the result of hydrogen gas trapped in the sheet metal structures erected over the containment domes (which were undamaged by the explosions). The hydrogen explosions were scary looking but were largely inconsequential. The plant didn’t explode. Three reactor cores overheated and melted. Nuclear has been providing the world with most of its low carbon electricity for over half a century now. In that time, there have been three incidents of note. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. Only one harmed people. Considering that about 40,000 people die on our roads every year, calling Fukushima a disaster begs for a definition of what a disaster is.

    Steve says:

    “…There have understandably been some mixed reactions to the decision. Areas around the Fukushima Daiichi plant are still so heavily contaminated with radiation that there are many of the 160,000 people originally evacuated from the region who still cannot return…”

    85,000 people were mandated to evacuate, not 160,000. That number will be down to 35,000 (population of a state college) in a little over a year from now. There was much less contamination than the lay press portrays.

    Steve says:

    “…So why is a country that is still suffering from a nuclear nightmare so willing to delve back into a form of electrical energy generation that many across the globe are quick to loathe?…”

    Nightmare? Nobody was injured by it. The only nightmare about it is the cost of importing so much fossil fuel because the nuclear plants are shut down.

    Steve says:

    “…Yet major nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 flipped the narrative on nuclear power in just a few years’ time….”

    I don’t think you have the right historical timeline. The narrative had been flipped already by anti-nuclear groups who conflated nuclear energy with nuclear weapons. For example, the movie China Syndrome (starring an anti-nuclear activist–Jane Fonda) was released two weeks before three mile island, which also did not harm anyone.

    Steve says:

    “…To many, the chance of either of these events ever repeating themselves makes the discussion of increasing our society’s reliance on nuclear energy a complete non-starter….”

    Yeah, but many also accept the odds that three incidents of note in half a century, of which two harmed no one, especially in light of statistics like 40,000 killed in cars annually in the U.S. alone, have no problem with nuclear.

    Steve says:

    “…With nuclear power returning to Japan a few short years after its own major nuclear event, we wanted to ponder the question of whether nuclear power could help wean us from fossil fuels more quickly than solar, wind or other forms of energy….”

    The chart in the following link shows how much faster nuclear grew compared to renewables.

    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/nuclear-has-scaled-far-more-rapidly-than-renewables

    Steve says:

    “…It might come as a surprise to some that Three Mile Island continues to produce power, up to 2,568 megawatts of thermal power (MWt) on a license extending to 2034…”

    It might come as an even bigger surprise to some that Chernobyl continued to produce power for 14 years after the accident.

    Steve says:

    “…Much like electricity generating systems utilizing fossil fuels, nuclear power reactors use heat to turn water into steam which turns a generator to create the electricity that travels to our homes and places of work….”

    Keep in mind that solar thermal power plants also use steam turbines.

    Steve says:

    “…In the next few weeks we’ll explore what we’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and how nuclear power can be implemented safely and appropriately to further reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and foreign energy supplies….”

    Would you agree that the word “safely” is largely arbitrary? Safe relative to what? There is no safer means of generating power. Airplanes kill tens of thousands, cars, 40K annually, and the list could go on and on. Even Chernobyl, the poster child for how not to build and operate a nuclear reactor only killed a few thousand and ironically managed to create Europe’s largest wildlife preserve.

  3. Gene Quinn August 24, 2015 8:39 am

    Russ-

    Thanks for the comment. I am, however, a little confused. You quote Steve like you disagree with what he says and then the comment based on the quotation provided in most instances has nothing to do with what you quote from the article.

    As for you calling into question the characterization of the Japan incident as a nightmare, I’m not sure what else you would call it for those affected. It seems to you a nightmare can only occur if many tens of thousands of people die, which is curious.

    AS for your minimization of Chernobyl — all I can say is WOW.

    The truth is that built and operated properly nuclear power plants are extremely safe. You undoubtedly are a true believer, but your blind support and minimization of nuclear accidents does the industry no favors.

    -Gene

  4. Trenth August 26, 2015 1:33 pm

    The restart has faced: a volcano, a seawater leak, a huge typhoon, and a 5.2 earthquake.

    Maybe it’s not a good idea.

    Now the restarted has been halted. They plan to modify the reactor by plugging 64 tubes. Really? Were those just extra tubes in the design?

    Big money cuts corners till things break and people die. Then they deny it, and charge the taxpayer for the cleanup.

    Nuclear is a dead end.

    Solar and wind are now available cheaper than any other sources.
    http://www.lazard.com/media/1777/levelized_cost_of_energy_-_version_80.pdf
    We need to go solar, wind, hydro, waste to energy and fuels from air,water and electricity as fast as possible.
    We are facing peak coal, oil and nuclear way sooner than we thought.

    The IAEA says that we will have uranium shortages starting in 2025, then getting worse fast.
    http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Pub1104_scr.pdf
    “As we look to the future, presently known resources
    fall short of demand.”

  5. Steven Brachmann September 11, 2015 11:49 am

    @Trenth – Sorry, swinging around to this a bit late, but I did want to make one point based on your post. The IAEA report you cite for declining uranium reserves was printed in 2001. The World Nuclear Association has reported much more recently that the known global supplies of uranium have increased by 25 percent in 10 years because of mineral exploration – http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Uranium-Resources/Supply-of-Uranium/. Further exploration would likely yield more useful stores of uranium. Nuclear is not facing any supply shortages any day soon. And as we’ve pointed out above, some of the byproducts of nuclear fission reactors can be reused to create more energy. Coal or oil cannot be reused like that.