The Nuclear Question, Part One: Walking Around Chernobyl
After a cold and drizzly morning this past May, the sun is finally out in the Exclusion Zone, the heavily guarded area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine.
The circular-shaped zone — which has a radius of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) — is located about 60 miles north of Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, and about nine miles south of the border with Belarus. It’s full of tall pine trees and big, open, green fields where wild horses and deer graze. The area is so quiet, so deserted, and so overgrown that it’s hard to imagine it was once home to more than 130,000 people.
It took the Soviets five years to build Chernobyl, and the plant began producing power in 1977. Unlike those constructing power plants in the U.S. and western Europe, though, they didn’t build strong concrete and steel containment buildings around their nuclear reactors. So when a safety test went awry on April 26, 1986, and caused a big explosion inside Reactor No. 4, huge amounts of radiation were released into the atmosphere.
Thirty years later, the area is still officially uninhabitable. Most spots inside the 30-kilometer zone aren’t particularly radioactive, but still, anyone who works there — from the guides to the thousands of nuclear scientists, construction workers, cooks and hotel workers, and military security guards — can only spend a certain number of consecutive days inside the zone and must consent to regular medical examinations. Any tourist wishing to visit the area must be part of a government-approved group.
The Exclusion Zone is eerie and decaying, a hauntingly beautiful time capsule. Nine other tour participants and I walk over broken glass, scattered papers, and things I assume were once clothes or blankets. I explore rooms filled with rusty, antiquated medical equipment in an abandoned hospital, and dozens of classrooms filled with desks — sometimes still lined up in rows and piled high with paperback books. There are children’s drawings and alphabet flashcards all over the desks and floors in one of the classrooms, and a giant pile of child-sized gas masks in the corner of another.
In some buildings, we have to creep along the edges of a room because parts of the floor are rotted out. We walk in a zigzag pattern to avoid the leaking ceilings and puddles in long, windowless hallways.
After a second full day of exploring abandoned and crumbling houses, tall cement apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, grocery stores, and even a children’s summer camp — members of my small tour group, most of whom are European or American and either in their late 20s or middle-age, are standing around, chatting in a parking lot by the “rustic” Soviet-style hotel where we had spent the previous night.
“Did your parents talk about Chernobyl when you were growing up?” I ask Mykhailo “Misha” Teslenko, one of my tour guides. At 27, Teslenko is two years younger than me and has been giving tours in the Exclusion Zone for almost six years.
“Not really,” he says.
“Did your grandparents?”
“Grandparents, yeah. Great-grandparents as well.” Teslenko was born three years after the Chernobyl accident, in the small village of Fabrikivka, on the outskirts of the Exclusion Zone. His grandfather was a “liquidator,” one of the 830,000 young military soldiers the Soviet government sent into the disaster area to clean up the radioactive contamination around the plant.
The liquidators were tasked with all sorts of things. Some shoveled radioactive debris that was to be stored away in a remote area, while others were told to cut down trees or exterminate all wild and domestic animals. By 2005, about 20 percent of the liquidators had died, according to a report from the Chernobyl Foundation.
Most were in their 30s and 40s, like Teslenko’s grandfather, who died from lung cancer at 45.
“I remember they were talking about this catastrophe, that there was not a lot of information,” Teslenko continues. “Three days after [the accident], they found out there was a big fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and that’s it. They were not told anything: what to do, how to react to that, how to act at all. So they were just living their normal life.”
For three days, the Soviets didn’t tell people living near the plant that there was a problem. The only way anyone in the public found out something was wrong was because radiation detectors in Western Europe started registering a big radiation plume blowing in from the east.
When pressed, the Soviets eventually acknowledged there had been an accident. Yet, even after the military began evacuating people near the plant, the government continued to downplay the problem. They told evacuees they’d be gone for three days, and instructed them to pack accordingly.
I ask Teslenko if he ever worries about the 15 nuclear reactors currently operating in Ukraine. Not really, he responds, adding that most people he knows who oppose nuclear power don’t even really understand it.
I assume that given the chance to go anywhere, most people wouldn’t choose to visit the site of the world’s largest nuclear disaster. But I did.
I wanted to walk around the overgrown and crumbling central squares of abandoned cities and villages, and see what a house looks like after a frightened family packs only a small bag of belongings and never returns. I wanted to see Chernobyl, 30 years later.
The week before, I had visited Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, home of the second largest nuclear disaster in history, the 2011 triple meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (prefectures are the Japanese version of states).
In both cases, I wanted to know how a country recovers from a nuclear accident and how its citizens feel about it, because in the last year, I’ve become obsessed with nuclear power and how I should feel about it.
This all began when I moved to Arizona from the East Coast two years ago and realized that I suddenly was living in the fallout zone of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the country’s largest nuclear power plant.
Though Palo Verde is in a shrubby valley that feels like the middle of nowhere, it’s actually only 45 miles west of downtown Phoenix, 45 miles north of Gila Bend, and about 20 miles away from Verrado, a gorgeous planned community of luxury homes and golf courses.
The plant itself is in the little town of Tonopah, a few miles off Exit 98 on Interstate 10. If you’ve ever driven to Los Angeles from Phoenix, you’ve passed Palo Verde, though you’d be forgiven for not noticing it, because the plant isn’t easy to see from the highway. But it’s out there, and it provides 35 percent of the electricity generated in the state.
It’s also notable in that it’s the only nuclear power plant in the U.S. that’s not near a large body of water, which arguably makes it even scarier, since such plants are almost always built near water for safety purposes I’ll explain later.
Prior to moving to Arizona, if you had asked me how I felt about nuclear power, I would have told you I opposed it. I knew proponents bragged about its low carbon footprint, but in my mind, the costs greatly outweighed the benefits. Nuclear power was just too scary and too dangerous to be worth it.
And here’s the thing: These sorts of questions really did matter to me. I’m the kind of nerdy person who goes out for drinks and wants to talk about environmental problems. I was the girl whose high school yearbook quote was “give a hoot, don’t pollute,” and I’m the person who, when given the option, reads books or watches Netflix documentaries about climate change.
I spent my sophomore year at Connecticut College living in “Earth House,” the school’s eco-friendly dorm. We only used compact fluorescent light bulbs, ate vegetarian, eschewed bottled water, and showered with buckets on the floor of the tub to collect gray water for flushing toilets and watering plants. (The year I lived there, by the way, we came in second place in the campus-wide holiday dorm-decorating contest after we turned our living room and porch into a winter wonderland constructed entirely out of recycled materials.)
The good news is that I know I’m not alone. Lots of people in my generation — those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s and referred to as millennials — are deeply concerned about the environment.
The exact statistics vary depending on the specific poll or the wording of the question, but my generation consistently reports concerns about rising sea levels, frequent severe storms, drought, famine, and all of the other problems the scientific community has assured us will happen unless we substantially (and quickly) reduce our global carbon emissions.
One recent poll by the McCombs School of Business Energy Management and Innovation Center at the University of Texas found that we’re more likely than older generations to say climate change is a problem, that we need to reduce our carbon emissions, and that we’re interested in taking steps to do so. It makes sense when you think about it, since we grew up at a time when the science of climate change was already well established, and at a time when the world was already experiencing its negative effects.
All of this is to say that, as far as I was concerned, you couldn’t call yourself an environmentalist and be in favor of nuclear power — you might as well also advocate that people throw their trash out of the car window. And looking back, I can’t remember ever being challenged on this assumption.
Until I got to Phoenix, that is. Beyond the surprise of learning I lived so close to Palo Verde, I was shocked to meet people who cared about the environment and supported nuclear power — people, in fact, who supported nuclear power because they cared about the environment.
I was skeptical, to say the least. Nuclear is scary, I’d remind myself, recalling images of deformed children and three-eyed fish I’d seen somewhere. But after a particularly heated (yet friendly) debate with a New Times colleague about the issue, I started to wonder if I was wrong.
The first thing I learned upon investigating is that on paper, in terms of actual risk, it’s easy to be in favor of nuclear power, since I’m apparently far more likely to drown in my own bathtub than I am to die as the result of a nuclear accident. But I think we all know that emotions play a big part in how we assess danger and make choices.
So I made a decision: If I was going to change my mind about nuclear power, I needed to see both the good and bad sides of it, and thanks to a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship grant, I was able to visit Japan and Ukraine.
After I got back, I toured Palo Verde, visited uranium mines near the Grand Canyon, and spent a few hours grilling a very patient team of state and county emergency-response experts on evacuation plans, trying to pinpoint exactly what would happen should something go wrong at Palo Verde.
I met with academic experts in nuclear physics, nuclear safety, uranium mining and milling, and nuclear waste disposal. I talked with two nuclear experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists, another at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a representative of the Ukraine Nuclear Association, and legal experts in environmental policy.
I read books about the history and future of nuclear power, the disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl, Hiroshima, uranium, and even a sociological assessment about the origins of nuclear fear. I also reviewed government and independent reports about the nuclear industry, post-accident cleanup, and reform efforts, and I watched at least a dozen documentaries and TED talks.
I consulted environmental groups and journalists covering nuclear power in Japan, Ukraine, and the U.S., and I talked to people of various ages and backgrounds during my travels.
And yet, even after all of this, while I’m certainly more comfortable living near a nuclear power plant, and ready to say that I think it’s something we need to embrace if we have any hope of quickly mitigating the effects of climate change, I still have my doubts.
Part of the challenge is that there is just no consensus on so many critical issues. Some experts I talked to explained why nuclear power is safe, and others said the opposite. Some scientists told me it’s unrealistic to think we’ll meet all of our energy needs with renewable sources like solar and wind, while others said we could do it if the political will was there. Some people told me that nuclear waste is a huge, unsolvable problem, and again, others accused the first group of exaggerating.
How do you know who is right when everyone has valid points and good evidence?
“Nothing is going to be perfectly risk-free,” Dr. Keith Holbert, professor of nuclear engineering at Arizona State University, told me.
And he’s right. Bottom line: No form of energy is without its problems.
Coal plants are dirty (and actually release more radioactivity than nuclear plants do on a regular basis).
Wind turbines kill birds.
Solar panels don’t work at night.
Hydroelectric dams wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems.
Oil rigs can spill or catch fire.
Fracking for natural gas is poisoning drinking water and probably causing earthquakes.
And if you think that dramatically reducing our energy consumption in the developed world will solve the problem, I’m sorry to say it won’t. Even if we were to somehow convince everyone in the U.S. to live off the grid, the change would mean nothing when compared to the coming energy demands of a rapidly growing world population.
So if we accept that there is no perfect solution to our energy needs, and that everything involves a trade-off, where should we stand on nuclear?
There are currently 447 nuclear reactors in the world, accounting for 11 percent of all electricity used. But with another 160 under construction — including four in the U.S. — along with hundreds of more proposals, that percentage is likely to increase in the near future.
Is nuclear the key to saving the planet, or the most foolish way to generate electricity ever devised by humankind?
When I began reporting this story, I quickly realized that what I knew about nuclear power was limited to whatever I had managed to retain from my high school chemistry class. Turns out, while the ins and outs of nuclear power generation are incredibly complicated, the basics of it are relatively easy to understand, and have remained unchanged, despite big technological advances in the industry.
The nuclear story begins in 1934, when an Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, successfully split an unstable uranium atom by shooting a neutron at its nucleus. Fermi noted that this process created a tremendous amount of energy, and four years later, two German physicists, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, came up with an explanation for why — nuclear fission.
The term nuclear fission sounds complicated, but really all you need to know is that it’s the process of splitting an atom to create energy in the form of heat. When it happens, the atom also shoots off one or two other neutrons, which can then go on to hit other unstable atoms nearby, eventually creating a chain reaction.
As legend has it, Meitner and Frisch were sitting on a bench in a German park talking about fission when they realized that with enough radioactive uranium, it might be possible to start a massive chain reaction and create a very, very powerful energy source — that is, an atomic bomb.
But even with a theoretical design for a bomb in mind — the idea of using nuclear power to generate electricity would come much later — scientists still had a long way to go before they could actually make it work.
One of the first big obstacles was finding a way to purify, or enrich, enough uranium to reach what’s called “critical mass.” Put simply, critical mass just refers to the percentage of really unstable uranium (an isotope called U-235) relative to more stable uranium isotopes that’s necessary to create and sustain the intended chain reaction — in case you’re wondering, as I certainly did, a uranium deposit in the ground doesn’t explode on its own because only 0.72 percent of it is U-235, meaning that the unstable isotopes are just too few and far between to create a chain reaction.
After uranium ore is mined from the ground, scientists use centrifuges and chemicals to isolate U-235 to the necessary proportions. Nuclear power reactors require fuel that’s between 3.5 and 4.5 percent U-235, while weapons need fuel that is at least 80 percent U-235. (Other radioactive elements do work in reactors and bombs, but whether we’re talking about uranium or plutonium or thorium, the basic premise remains the same.)
Once critical mass is achieved, the pile of uranium is shaped into pellets about the size of your fingertip. Those pellets are then stacked inside thin rods and grouped into what are called fuel assemblies. The fuel assemblies, which look like square-shaped bundles of long, thin metal rods, are lowered into a pool of water inside the reactor core along with big rods made from boron.
Something in the chemical property of boron inhibits nuclear fission, so until those rods are removed from the reactor, no reactions occur. (Similarly, in all nuclear reactors, should something go wrong, the boron rods automatically drop back into the reactor to stop the reactions.)
Once the fuel assemblies are in place, the boron rods are slowly removed with a mechanical crane, and the fission gets underway.
At the most basic level, a nuclear power plant uses fission to generate heat. That heat is used to boil water into steam, and that steam is used to drive a turbine that powers an electricity-producing generator. This is actually how coal-fired power plants work, too, except that they burn coal to create heat.
There are two major types of nuclear reactors used in the U.S. — boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs). The underlying mechanism for generating electricity is the same in both, and the main difference has to do with whether the steam is made directly in the reactor or not. In a BWR, the fuel rods in the reactor core heat the water around them. That water boils into steam that drives the turbine generator. In a PWR, by contrast, the water inside the reactor isn’t allowed to boil — remember, increased pressure raises the boiling temperature of water. This super-hot liquid water heats a separate loop of water, which is allowed to boil into steam, and is piped to the turbine to generate electricity.
There are 34 BWRs in the U.S., 23 of which are the same design as the reactors that melted down in Fukushima in 2011. BWR reactors are an older technology, and are generally considered a little less safe than PWR reactors, of which there are 66 in the U.S., including the three at Palo Verde.
A properly functioning nuclear power plant relies on the balance between the water level in the reactor, the temperature of that water, and the pressure of the steam that’s generated.
There are automatic safety systems built into the design of a plant to correct or stop minor issues from becoming dangerous problems. But as critics of nuclear power like to point out, those safety features haven’t always worked properly.
Start delving into the history of nuclear power, and you’ll quickly find that both people who support and oppose the technology inevitably make a point of mentioning how it all started with nuclear weapons. While telling you this, of course, each side comes to vastly different conclusions about what it means.
It’s pejorative to the anti-nuclear camp, a demonstration of nuclear power’s inherent danger. To the pro-nuclear camp, however, it’s just the opposite. They see commercial nuclear power as a testament to how far society has come, and to our ability to find a positive application for a weapon of mass destruction.
“It’s difficult to separate nuclear weapons from nuclear power, and for some people, no matter what, they are one and the same thing,” Keith Holbert, the ASU nuclear physicist, says. “There was a lot of secrecy after World War II, and we know that secrecy only begets distrust.”
As journalist Tom Zoellner describes in his 2009 book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World, in 1939, when scientists seemed on the brink of controlling fission and obtaining a large-scale nuclear chain reaction, the famous physicist Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warning him that once achieved, “this new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of … extremely powerful bombs.”
Einstein told the president that other countries, specifically Nazi Germany, were quickly buying up uranium and working to make such an atomic bomb. The U.S. needed to start stockpiling it and fund a nuclear research program, too, he added, so as not to be left behind or allow our enemies to get the technology first.
The idea didn’t catch on immediately in the White House, but in December 1941, coincidentally one day before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt authorized the notorious Manhattan Engineer District, or S-1 Project — code-named the Manhattan Project.
One of the first orders of business was building a facility to enrich huge quantities of uranium, which project engineers did in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1942. Next, they built the world’s first nuclear reactor, at the University of Chicago, to produce plutonium. (Plutonium is one of the byproducts of a uranium-powered reactor, and was in high demand at the time because it doesn’t occur naturally and is even more fissile than uranium.)
Just because you can make something doesn’t mean you should use it, of course, and in June 1945, the first antinuclear activists, a group of concerned scientists, urged President Harry S. Truman not to use the atomic bomb.
“The development of nuclear power not only constitutes an important addition to the technological and military power of the United States, but also creates grave political and economic problems for the future of this country,” they wrote in a document referred to as the Franck Report.
Truman and his advisors didn’t heed this warning, and on August 6, 1945 — after spending the equivalent of $26 billion in today’s dollars — the U.S. dropped a uranium bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, that instantly killed between 80,000 and 140,000 people and injured at least 100,000 more. (Three days later, another 79,000 people died when the U.S. dropped a plutonium bomb over the city of Nagasaki.)
“In physical terms, an atomic bombing might equal a night’s work with incendiary bombs, but the psychological impact would be another matter,” writes Spencer R. Weart, director emeritus of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in Maryland, in his 2012 book, The Rise of Nuclear Fear.
“Images from Hiroshima became emblems of nuclear energy, and at the same time, emblems of murder, warfare … and of death itself.”
The end of WWII was also the start of the Cold War era ominously referred to as the Nuclear or Atomic Age. After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in August 1949, people in cities and towns across the U.S. memorized the locations of fallout shelters. Some families even prepared backyard, underground shelters stocked with food, water, and other survival provisions.
Overall, it was a time of collective paranoia and anxiety. Children practiced “ducking and covering” in schools, and when polled, many adults said they were convinced World War III was just around the corner.
Not quite coincidentally, government leaders began changing the way they spoke about nuclear power. No longer was it to be a scary wartime technology used exclusively by the military, they asserted. No, from this point on, nuclear power would be recognized as a peaceful source of commercial energy for civilians.
This tone change was exemplified in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s December 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
“The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here — now — today,” Eisenhower said, going on to pledge that the U.S. would “devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
The following year, construction began on the country’s first commercial nuclear power plant. It was located about 25 miles from Pittsburgh in the town of Shippingport, Pennsylvania. It took three years and $72.5 million to complete. Other plants soon followed, and by 1978, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had approved more than 100 reactors in 30 states — including the three reactors at Palo Verde just west of metro Phoenix.
Ever since the nuclear bomb was used in Japan, some portion of the public has been opposed to nuclear power of any sort. Fears about radiation poisoning, nuclear waste, and reactors exploding like nuclear bombs — something that’s not possible, by the way — were exploited in Hollywood horror movies. As Weart describes in his book, films like Godzilla in 1954, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964, and Planet of the Apes in 1968 helped make nuclear energy seem like a monstrosity.
And then on March 16, 1979, the movie The China Syndrome hit theaters. Staring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, the film is about a television news team that discovers a big cover-up at the local nuclear power plant. It was an instant blockbuster that coincidently came out 12 days before the event that would forever change the American attitude toward nuclear power: the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Middletown, Pennsylvania.
I don’t remember when I first heard the term “Three Mile Island,” but it’s one of those historical events that I imagine holds collective meaning for just about everyone in the country, even those in my generation who didn’t live through it. Three Mile Island is one of those things we hear so much about that we know what happened, right?
At least, I thought I did. Before this project, I was fairly positive that Three Mile Island was the scene of a big nuclear accident that resulted in an evacuation and caused all sorts of health problems. Total nuclear meltdown, radioactive plumes, radiation sickness — these are all things I certainly associated with Three Mile Island. Turns out, I was wrong.
Though a small amount of radiation escaped from the plant, it wasn’t enough to cause any adverse health or environmental effects. (The psychological impact is a different story.)
Still, like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island is synonymous with nuclear disaster, making it the kind of event a lot of people talk about without really knowing many, if any, details.
Here’s what did happen. At 4 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, a mechanical or electrical failure disrupted a pump in the cooling system of Reactor No. 2 and caused it to shut down. But even though the chain reactions were no longer taking place inside the fuel rods, the fuel still had lots of residual heat capable of boiling the water in the reactor. As that water around the fuel rods boiled into steam, pressure within the reactor mounted.
The plant design included a relief valve, or vent, to reduce pressure in situations like this, but unbeknownst to the plant operators, it got stuck open. With steam pouring out of the vent, the water level inside the reactor began rapidly dropping.
By the time the plant manager declared a general emergency around 7 a.m., the fuel rods were exposed to air and already melting.
Media swarmed into the area, desperate to figure out what was happening. Problem was, there was very little information. Initial news reports, coupled with meager assurances from the nuclear experts, made the public panic. The confusion and fear continued to build for two days, and finally, on March 30, the governor advised that any pregnant women and young children within a five-mile radius of the plant evacuate immediately. (It was only an advisory, never an order.)
While some still argue that the recommendation to evacuate was unnecessary, one thing everyone agrees on is that it definitely served to amplify public confusion and anxiety. It is estimated that about 150,000 people in the area — men and non-pregnant women included — left town.
Three Mile Island is often remembered as this huge catastrophe, when, in fact, it wasn’t. There was a partial meltdown inside one of the reactors, but the thick containment structure worked to keep lethal amounts of radiation from getting out. The average person is said to have received less radiation than if they got a typical dental X-ray. (The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, by contrast, was so severe because the Soviets didn’t build containment structures around their reactors.)
“I covered the Three Mile Island accident for the Philadelphia Inquirer and saw firsthand what a disaster like that does to a community, and the level of fear that it produced,” says journalist Susan Stranahan, who was part of the news team at the Inquirer that won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the event. “Were things overblown? In hindsight, yes. But it was America’s first glimpse at what could go wrong with this magic technology of nuclear.”
During my trip to Ukraine, when I wasn’t in the Exclusion Zone, I was 60 miles south in Kiev, staying with a friend’s parents, Helen and Leon. (Living in Ukraine, they worry about government retaliation and asked that I only use their first names for this story.)
Helen and Leon were in their late 20s when the Chernobyl accident happened, and 30 years later, though they don’t always seem to want to talk about the accident, it’s clear that they remember the panic and uncertainty that gripped Kiev.
Instead of talking about their experiences 30 years ago, we talk a lot about the U.S., particularly New York City, which is Helen’s favorite place in the world — she teaches fashion courses at a university in Kiev.
We also joke about my trip to the Exclusion Zone. In their thick Russian accents, they tease me about how I might grow a third arm and start glowing after going near Chernobyl. Should they let me back into the apartment? Burn all of the clothes I wore there?
That said, there are moments — very subtle ones — particularly with Helen, when the tone of her voice changes, or she gets that distinct “concerned mother” look in her eyes, and I can tell she is actually really worried about my trip. Worried and baffled.
Doctors here told women to get abortions after the accident, Helen tells me the night before I go to Chernobyl. When she gave birth to her daughter a few years later, she, like all of her friends in Kiev, was too scared to breastfeed.
“Why would you want to go there?” she asks again and again. Everyone she introduces me to asks the same question.
Helen gives private English lessons on the side, and one night, she takes me out to dinner with one of her students, Lena (she also asked that I just use her first name). They bring me to a dark and very hip restaurant — the only place in Kiev worth eating oysters at, they say — and we sit at their usual table in the quieter back room.
“It’s so scary, it’s so scary,” Lena keeps saying, pronouncing it skah-rie. She shows me her arm and picks at the blond hairs growing on it. As a teenager in Kiev at the time of the accident, she says, it was the exposure to radiation that made her start growing thick arm hair. No other women in her family have arm hair, she insists.
Both she and Helen go on to talk about the health problems people they knew had after the accident. They describe headaches, fatigue, and all other sorts of minor ailments — the sorts of symptoms that are also often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.
Multiple studies and agencies, including the World Health Organization, say some of the biggest health impacts of the Chernobyl accident — and similarly, the Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents — are related to mental health. In both countries, people report not trusting the government to give them accurate information, and it’s this sense of mistrust, coupled with fear and a strong sense of stigma against those most affected, that can help explain the reaction from Lena and Helen, and so many people in Japan and Ukraine that I met.
“They are going to feed you bullshit at Chernobyl — tell her, Lena,” Helen says, nodding to her friend.
“It’s so scary, it’s so scary. You should not go there.”
I’m in the foyer of a crumbling hospital, poking around rusted metal chairs and oversized planters filled with dirt and big dead trees, when Sergey and Misha Teslenko, the two Ukrainian brothers guiding my trip to Chernobyl, call the 10 of us on the tour to come see something. We huddle around the brothers in the corner of the room as they point to a large metal cabinet covered with dust and a pile of rags. We are looking at the famous “fireman’s clothes,” they say.
Sergey takes a yellow Geiger counter out of the pocket of his black leather jacket, and holds it a few inches above the rags. It starts beeping like crazy and the number on the screen, which measures radiation, steadily climbs. In one photograph I have of this, the screen reads 110.5 millisieverts.
Sieverts are a radiation measurement that reflects how much harm a given dose will cause a person in a given time period. People who work at a nuclear power plant, for instance, are allowed a maximum dose of 50 millisieverts per year. To put that in perspective, a single dose of 400 millisieverts can give you radiation poisoning, whereas 4,000 millisieverts — or four sieverts — will give you such severe radiation poisoning that it, if not immediately treated, will be lethal. A dose of 8,000 millisieverts is definitely fatal.
After the big explosion at Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4, and the subsequent graphite fire it caused, dozens of firemen were dispatched to the plant. None of them had any idea that they were walking into a nuclear disaster zone. It’s estimated that each received a lethal dose of radiation within a few minutes.
There are certain areas of the Exclusion Zone that are considered off-limits, and the reactor is one of them. You can only view it from a distance — there are security cameras all around the plant — but if you were to somehow get inside the reactor, where a blob of very radioactive melted fuel still covers the ground, it’s estimated that even today you’d receive 50 sieverts, or 50,000 millisieverts, of radiation in about 10 minutes.
Two of the firemen died later that first day from radiation exposure after spending hours trying to put out flames coming from the reactor. Another 26 men died within a week. With the exception of the reactor itself, this pile of clothes is one of the “hottest” (most radioactive) things in the Exclusion Zone.
From what I can tell, no one knows exactly which fireman these radioactive clothes belonged to, or why they weren’t destroyed with the rest of the clothes and gear, but standing there watching the number on the Geiger counter rise, it’s hard not to wonder.
“Do you think that most people in Kiev and in Ukraine, and maybe all around the world, have a false understanding of how dangerous this place is?” I ask the Teslenko brothers at separate points in the day.
“Yeah. Exactly. This is the main reason why a lot of my friends refuse to come here. They are just chickens and they are afraid of the word ‘Chernobyl,’” Misha replies. “They are mocking me every single day almost that, ‘one day your hair will start to fall off, your nails will start to fall off,’ and such kind of crazy stupid things. But they are just chickens; they don’t want to come here. I invited them a lot of times just to come to the Exclusion Zone, even for free, I can arrange that for them, for my friends. But they are afraid. They are just afraid of the word ‘Chernobyl,’ and they don’t realize that the situation here, it’s not [as] bad as it was 30 years ago right after the accident.”
“Most people living in Ukraine think that if you come here for one day, you could die. They don’t know how radiation really works,” Sergey says. “I understand what it is, how it works, and that to harm my body I would have to go to some really contaminated areas.”
To be sure, there are areas of the Exclusion Zone that aren’t safe, but that’s why no one is allowed inside the zone without certified guides.
“People play a lot of zombie video games and watch scary movies about radiation or problems with nuclear,” Sergey says. “We make fun of that, but some people really believe that.”
To this day, Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear accident in history. The official death toll is less than 50, though almost everyone believes the true number is much higher. No one really knows how many people got cancer from Chernobyl or how many people were born with genetic mutations as a result.
Some estimate that in total, about 4,000 people will ultimately die from radiation-related complications, while others say the number of victims is probably closer to 10,000, and may be even higher — whatever the true number, there’s good reason to believe a lot of evidence and facts have been covered up or distorted by the Soviets.
Though the Chernobyl power plant is in Ukraine, it’s actually about nine miles away from the present day Ukraine-Belarus border. By far, the worst impacts from the accident were felt — and continue to be felt — in Belarus, where at least 70 percent of the radiation landed. An estimated 7 million people received some radiation, and at least 2,000 villages and cities had to be evacuated. They remain uninhabited 30 years later.
“Belarus also has a 10-kilometer and 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone,” Gulliver Cragg, a young British journalist who has reported on nuclear issues there, tells me. “They had the same sort of liquidation cleanup and buried loads of villages [in the process].”
Over lunch in a popular café in Kiev, we talk about how Belarus bore the brunt of the accident, and the struggle we, and so many others, have had to wrap our minds around the effects of a nuclear accident when they’re impossible to quantify, and when there is so much contradictory information.
Some studies say X, some studies say Y. Some people say the accident was exaggerated, others say the impact has been severely covered up, he says.
What’s more, Cragg adds, “Some people will really deny they’re affected by radiation, while others say of course they are. But we’re not scientists; how do I know who is right?”
“The impact of certain doses of radiation is still a subject of debate,” says Azby Brown of Safecast, a citizen science group based in Tokyo that produces an open-source map showing radiation levels all over the world. But it’s scary because “it lodges in your body and starts killing you without you knowing.”
And, Brown adds, “We’ve all seen pictures of deformed children.”
The Nuclear Question, Part Two: Fear in Fukushima, Japan
Ever since the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in northeastern Japan five years ago, Ayako Saisho has dreamed about plums.
She was out running errands with her son on a breezy Sunday morning this past May when I met her on a street in Shimokitzawa, a small neighborhood in Tokyo. Shimokitazawa is sort of the Little Brooklyn of the city — it’s hip, famous for its coffee shops, bars, trendy clothing stores, and crowded streets filled with young people out shopping or sitting with friends in outdoor cafés.
As we stand chatting on a street corner, Saisho, 36, strokes her son’s head as he drifts in and out of sleep, strapped into a baby carrier against her chest. She tells me that before the Fukushima accident in 2011, she had never really thought about nuclear power, and certainly never worried about radiation. But now, she thinks about it a lot, especially when she’s grocery shopping: What can she buy? What foods are safe?
The amount of radiation released during the accident is estimated to be 1/10 of what was released at Chernobyl, but still, it contaminated the soil, nearby sources of drinking water, and crops. About a week after the accident, small amounts of cesium-137, one of the radioactive particles released during the accident, was discovered in cows’ milk more than 50 miles from the plant.
Five years later, the government encourages people to buy produce from Fukushima prefecture (prefectures are the Japanese version of states) to help the local economy, promising that everything is tested for radiation and is safe. But even now, Saisho says she’s skeptical, and avoids doing so.
That said, there’s a certain type of plum that grows predominantly in northern Japan, including Fukushima, that she’s always loved. So occasionally, and only since she stopped breastfeeding, Saisho buys a few plums for her and her husband to eat.
But she would never feed them to her baby.
At 2:49 p.m. on March 11, 2011, the ground in Tokyo started shaking violently. Witnesses reported that the earth itself seemed to emit a deep, low sonic roar — the sort of noise you feel more than hear. Houses vibrated with movement; downtown skyscrapers swayed. Ceramic dishes crashed to the floor and shattered, lights flickered or cut out entirely, and the Japanese public squeezed under desks or tables or whatever other cover they could find.
The Tohoku, or Great East Japan Earthquake, lasted six minutes and registered as a 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan since measurements began in 1900.
About 150 miles northeast of Tokyo in the town of Okuma, the earthquake knocked out the normal supply of power to the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant’s six reactors had a combined energy output of 4,696 megawatts, making it one of the biggest power plants in the world. (By comparison, Palo Verde produced just under 4,000 megawatts in 2015.)
Almost immediately after the main power lines went down, a series of emergency diesel generations kicked into power and triggered the emergency shutdown system (called SCRAM) at the plant, just as protocol dictated.
Within minutes, the nuclear fission chain reaction inside the fuel rods of Units 1, 2, and 3 started “scramming,” or stopping. (At the time, Unit 4 was undergoing routine maintenance, so all of its fuel rods were in the spent fuel pool above the reactor, while Units 5 and 6 were in what’s called “cold shutdown,” meaning that the reactors had been turned off for long enough that there was little to no risk of the fuel rods melting down.)
Crisis averted — or so officials thought.
Nuclear power plants are generally constructed near large bodies of water to help cool the steam after it’s gone though the turbine, and Fukushima-Daiichi was no exception. Built between 1967 and 1971, the plant is positioned on a 10-foot bluff above the Pacific Ocean and sits behind a seawall designed to withstand 33-foot-high waves.
Shortly after the earthquake, most of coastal Japan was under severe tsunami warnings, and sure enough, the first wave crashed into the seawall by Fukushima at 3:27 p.m. But the wave was a mere 13 feet high, and the wall stopped it from flooding the mainland.
Eight minutes later, however, a second and much larger wave hit. This one was about 50 feet high. It went right over the seawall and crashed into the power plant.
The seawater flooded the buildings, destroyed some of the emergency pump systems, and took out critical infrastructure like the emergency backup generators that were currently powering the plant — even though fission wasn’t happening, the fuel rods were still very hot and so the generators were needed to power the cooling system.
Suddenly, the only thing stopping a total meltdown was a series of eight-hour batteries. This was a situation that no one had ever expected, let alone prepared for. Within minutes, those in charge of the plant realized they were facing the worst-case scenario.
And then, it got even worse.
Over the next few days, without sufficient power, the water inside the reactors and some of the spent fuel pools boiled off, exposing the fuel rods to air. There were multiple hydrogen explosions, three of the reactor cores melted down, and a substantial amount of radiation was released into the atmosphere, further devastating a region still crippled by the earthquake and tsunami.
“Radiation has spread from these reactors and the reading of the level seems high …There’s still a very high risk of further radioactive material coming out,” Naoto Kan, then-Prime Minister of Japan, told the country during a televised press conference on March 15.
Nine months later, Tatsuhiko Kodama, director of the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo told a reporter from the New York Times, “I believe it is possible to save Fukushima, but many evacuated residents must accept that it won’t happen in their lifetimes.”
After the earthquake and tsunami, Martin Fackler spent days collecting stories. As the Tokyo bureau chief for the New York Times at the time, he recalls going from one ad hoc refugee center to another, talking to people who had survived the tsunami, and taking stock of the damage.
He talked to people out on the beaches combing through debris for missing family members, and one day he followed a group of five emergency rescuers as they searched for bodies with beagle dogs. He remembers watching one of the men spray paint the number two on the outside of a battered vehicle; there were two dead bodies inside.
He was working off two or three hours of sleep a night, he says, and because there was no power or internet in most places along the coast, to file stories, he had to dictate copy to someone in the New York office via satellite phone.
I met with Fackler in the lobby coffee shop of a posh downtown Tokyo hotel, not too far from where he had been when the earthquake hit five years earlier. As we sat drinking coffee out of elegant, white ceramic cups, he said he remembers it being a sunny Friday afternoon, and that he had left the bureau office to run a quick errand.
“I was walking under an elevated train line and I heard a racket that I thought was a train overhead,” he says, “but when I looked up, I saw no train.” Instead, he saw the steel I-beams of the train track “twisting.”
“I was thinking, ‘I didn’t realize those move so much.’ That’s when I realized this was an earthquake,” he says. Upon getting home later that evening, he saw the footage of the tsunami wave, and immediately called his photographer friend. They agreed to head up there early the next morning.
It took them most of the day to get to the damaged area, but by the evening of March 12, they found a place where people were gathering, and began conducting interviews. It was at that point that they first heard there had been some sort of accident at the Fukushima plant.
Details about the situation were scant, but he continued to pick up bits and pieces over the next few days as he and his photographer friend drove around the damaged area. In all, the multiple tsunami waves flooded more than 200 square miles of land along Japan’s northeast coastline. Some waves came six miles inland.
“There were mounds of debris everywhere: boats and crumpled cars, twisted refrigerators, stoves, dead pets and people, clothes, shattered wood, and roof tiles,” he says. “It looked like a bulldozer had swept through the towns. Everything that was in these homes lay there grotesquely bare. The waves had ripped clean whole communities.”
With so much destruction, the people most affected by the tsunami were often the last ones to learn about what was happening at Fukushima, but it wasn’t long before everyone heard there had been a series of explosions.
“The Japanese [government] were telling us nothing other than it was okay,” he says, while media elsewhere in the world were reporting a triple meltdown scenario. (The Japanese government wouldn’t admit there had been a meltdown for two more months.)
A few weeks after the accident, Fackler says he started hearing murmurs from some of his friends and sources in the government about something called “speedy.” He eventually figured out they were talking about SPEEDI, a computer system that uses meteorological data to predict radiation fallout.
With a little more digging, he learned that as the accident was unfolding, the Japanese government had real time SPEEDI data about the plume, but chose not to release it to the public. His colleague Norimitsu Onishi found a town that had actually been evacuated into the path of the plume, and together, they broke the story. Their piece quoted that town’s mayor, who equated the Japanese government’s actions to murder.
“That story redefined the debate in Japan,” Fackler says. “Five years later, the effort to cover up and downplay the risks, that’s still the smoking gun.”
It probably comes as no surprise to learn that the Soviets concealed information about the accident at Chernobyl and went to great lengths to downplay the problem, even when it meant putting their own people at risk. But for it to also happen in a democratic society like Japan 25 years later, well, that’s a different story.
Multiple independent commissions and studies concluded that the Japanese government had knowingly covered up information about the severity of the nuclear disaster, and of the dozens of young people I spoke to in Japan, not one told me that they trusted the government to disseminate health and safety information, let alone regulate nuclear power.
The feeling is understandable, given another revelation that came out of the Fukushima disaster: The country’s nuclear regulator and nuclear industry were extremely cozy, and had been for decades. This tight-knit relationship lent itself to corner-cutting, complacency, and the so-called “safety myth,” the belief that nuclear power was totally safe and no accident could happen, which many say is the root cause of the accident.
I heard people talk about the industry-regulator relationship and safety myth everywhere I went in Japan, and started wondering whether we had the same problems in the U.S. Much to my frustration, I’ve asked everyone I’ve spoken with about these things and have found no consensus.
The two nuclear physicists I spoke with at ASU, like those working in the U.S. nuclear industry, are confident that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission takes safety seriously and is both independent and forceful in applying rules; others I’ve met have opinions that range from concerned to absolutely sure it’s a pawn of the industry.
“I wouldn’t trust Greenpeace and I wouldn’t trust the [nuclear regulators] either,” Steve Andre, a journalist I met in Chernobyl, told me when I asked him who he trusts. “One group is really anti-nuclear and the other is really pro.”
Andre’s remark gets to the heart of why so much of the information about nuclear power feels ambiguous and confusing. As a layperson, who can you trust? History has shown us that governments lie about accidents and try to conceal information from the public or distort facts, but isn’t it also possible that anti-nuclear groups unconsciously play on fear and stretch the truth to fit their apocalyptic version of a world powered by nuclear?
From the people managing daily operations at Palo Verde to the APS executives worried about the bottom line, and from the national and international regulatory agencies to science journalists and other nuclear watchdog groups around the country, whom should we trust? And how do we know?
While all eyes were on Fukushima, there were two other nuclear near-misses that same summer here in the United States.
In June 2011, the Missouri River flooded the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station in Nebraska, and then a few months later, there were problems with one of the backup generators at the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Virginia after an earthquake knocked out the power.
In both situations, no radiation was released nor people harmed, but instead of admitting that the country probably needed to update its safety measures and regulations, representatives from the nuclear industry pointed to the fact that the accidents weren’t worst-case scenarios as evidence that the status quo was adequate.
“That kind of logic, critics have long said, is akin to arguing that if a drunk driver makes it home safely, the public doesn’t need to worry about drunk driving,” writes journalist Susan Stranahan in the 2014 book Fukushima, which she co-authored with David Lochbaum and Edwin Lyman, nuclear experts with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In the wake of the Fukushima meltdown, the NRC formed an internal task force to assess vulnerabilities in the country’s nuclear reactors and suggest ways to fix them. Their subsequent report had many recommendations, though “their number-one concern was fundamentally changing the way the NRC thinks about and approaches accidents like Fukushima,” Lyman says.
Even before Fukushima, Lyman was critical of the NRC’s reliance on complex risk and probability calculations to guide safety and security decisions. He calls this approach “baloney.”
“There are so many uncertainties and so many misleading assumptions. It’s not good information to base important decisions on,” he says. For example, the chances of every generator on-site all failing at once is practically zero, so if you were making decisions about how many backup electric systems you need and relying only on probability, you might conclude that one is enough.
“Fukushima showed us that a lot of these calculations are just wrong,” he says.
Much to Lyman’s disappointment, while certain safety upgrades and changes have been made since 2011, the NRC never ended up adopting the commission’s main suggestion.
“The nuclear industry and regulators plan for X, but they never ask ‘what if X plus one happens?’” Stranahan says. “Fukushima was the X plus one, and everyone was caught flat-footed.”
Lyman is careful to add that he doesn’t think people in the nuclear industry or NRC are deliberately doing things they think are unsafe.
“It’s the issue of the perception of risk,” he says. “Reactor owners become complacent and they don’t believe that what they’re doing is harmful. Over time, they think, ‘We don’t have to keep doing this.’ And that’s what gets people into trouble; that’s what a regulator is supposed to be guarding against: flippancy, complacency, lack of safety culture.”
This isn’t unique to the nuclear industry, he continues.
“Every corporate sector has the same issues. No one wants to build unsafe cars, but it happens because they cut corners.”
When I was in Fukushima Prefecture, I spent an afternoon touring some of the tsunami-damaged coastline in a taxi cab. It’s about a two-hour drive from Fukushima City to the coast, and my driver for the day was a skinny older man who spoke no English.
From the backseat of his car, with no one to talk to, I stare out of the window as we drive through mountain passes and densely forested areas.
About an hour in, he makes a little grunting noise to get my attention and points at something: a pile of about 20 black bags up ahead. I hold up my camera, and he pulls the car over so I can get out and take a few pictures of the pile.
A note on these bags: I had been told that I’d encounter a lot of plastic sacks filled with dirt on my trip, but nothing really could have prepared me for seeing thousands and thousands of them, stacked in long rows two or three high along the road, or in enormous depositories closer to the shoreline.
The giant bags, which weigh about one ton each when full, are part of the post-accident cleanup effort. About 26,000 laborers, most of whom the Times of Japan describes as being “from the margins of society with no special skills or close family ties,” wear limited protective gear and are literally tasked with removing an inch or two of contaminated topsoil — and all of the contaminated leaves and sticks and broken furniture, roof shingles, and children’s toys destroyed and left behind by the tsunami — and shoving it into these thick plastic sacks.
They are decontaminating the landscape and washing radioactive particles off the surfaces of homes, schools, and other buildings in an area about the size of Connecticut, notes an article in the New York Times. It’s an effort that, when you really think about it, starts to feel impossible.
After the bags are filled, they’re either left by the side of the road or transported and stacked in big, open fields. There are tens of millions of bags, and there is currently no long-term plan for what to do with them.
At the next, larger stack of bags, I again ask the driver to pull over. We repeat this exercise a few more times until I finally realize from the look on his face that this is what the entire rest of the trip will look like. I might as well be asking him to pull over every time we pass a tree.
I made a point of asking everyone I met in Ukraine and Japan why so many people are afraid of nuclear power. Without fail, every answer had to do with radiation.
“It’s invisible; you just don’t know,” my college friend Andras Molnar tells me. Molnar speaks fluent Japanese, and in 2011 was living and working as a middle school English teacher in Yamamoto, a small town near the coastal city of Sendai.
The earthquake hit the whole area hard, Molnar says, and because all of the power had been knocked out, the tsunami warning sirens never went off and no one knew to prepare for the wave. He was teaching at the time, and says that his school just happened to be in a hillier part of town a few miles inland, so it wasn’t affected by the series of powerful waves.
Unsure what to do, Molnar ended up staying at the middle school, which was turned into a temporary emergency shelter because it was on high ground and undamaged. For about a week, he and 400 other refugees slept on the floor together. They had no power or cellphone service, and so unlike the rest of the world, couldn’t watch the accident at Fukushima unfold in real time.
“I was just chilling in this nuclear environment and [we] had no idea,” he says now about the experience. When he did finally learn about the accident, he remembers thinking, “Well, I’m fucked; Fukushima is 30 miles south of me. I guess I’m dead.”
Molnar and the others would learn later that the wind had blown most of the radiation out toward the ocean, not north toward them, but for days he and thousands of others along the northeast coast of Japan just waited, wondering if they were going to die.
“I had no idea if I was being bathed in radiation,” he says. “You just don’t know. But what can you do?”
On my last day in Japan, I met with disaster medicine expert Dr. Atsushi Kumagai in a small conference room in the Fukushima University Hospital, about 52 miles from the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant.
Kumagai is a petite man with wispy black hair, wire-framed glasses, and a pronounced Adam’s apple. He sits at the table with his hands neatly folded, and is the sort of person who speaks slowly, as if he’s really thinking about what he wants to say before he says it. His English is practically flawless, likely the product of frequent work trips abroad — he recently came back from a conference in New York City about providing medical care in disaster areas.
For most of his working life, Kumagai was a surgeon at Nagasaki University Hospital in southwestern Japan, and helped start its emergency radiation medicine program. For his Ph.D, he studied genetic abnormalities in the children of atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki, and is considered one of Japan’s foremost experts in radiation exposure.
Two days after the accident at Fukushima, he, along with two nurses, a radiation technician, and a radiation biologist boarded an army helicopter and flew to Fukushima University Hospital.
In the midst of the post-tsunami chaos, they managed to set up a temporary and secluded hospital-within-a-hospital at FMU. No one there knew how to handle radiation exposure, which meant that Kumagai and his staff had to train the FMU employees and treat sick people at the same time.
For days, the staff worked long hours, taking a few hours at night to sleep on the floor in an empty part of the building.
“Every night, we had deep discussions about how to think about this all. We talked about our feelings and anxieties, about the meaning of life, and ‘can we survive?’
“We had such deep conversations, and people cried,” Kumagai says, placing his hands over his heart.
“Before the accident, frankly speaking, nobody was concerned about nuclear power. There was no attitude, no concern. It is a big problem that nobody cared because I think the Japanese people — including me — didn’t have the viewpoint of the risks … No one really understood the risk or how to measure or think about the risk,” he says.
“The Japanese attitude was, ‘We don’t want to see that there is a risk.’ In a blind situation we feel very safe, but it’s not a reality.”
I met Aika Yamamoto, a 19-year-old university student wearing jeans and a sweater, at a café near Kiddy Land, the famous five-story toy store in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. It was a rainy day, and Yamamoto was with two of her friends, May Goto and Misa Katagi, sitting at a corner table by a big window.
“In the future, I think we’ll have new sources of energy. I read a story about how we’ll charge our phones soon using photosynthetic technology,” Yamamoto says.
All three were 14 when the Fukushima accident happened, and like most teenagers, say they never had considered where their energy comes from before that.
In the years since, though, they’ve grown up in a country that has become starkly anti-nuclear — in the months after the accident, polls consistently found that anywhere between 70 and 80 percent of the population was opposed to nuclear power, and the country still remains deeply divided about the issue today.
And like most Japanese millennials I met, all three feel confident that nuclear power isn’t necessary.
“I think it’s too risky,” Yamamoto says.
“Overall, I think it’s a bad idea. We can live without it,” Katagi adds. “And I’m sure we’ll invent some cool thing in the future, so it’s not worth it.”
Meanwhile, talk to anyone who works with nuclear power, and they’re bound to tell you that things are changing rapidly. In all, there are 447 nuclear reactors operating in the world, 160 somewhere in the planning or construction process, and at least another 300 more have been proposed.
By far, the most ambitious county is China, which increased its nuclear power capability by 31 percent in 2015. The country currently has 35 working reactors, another 21 under construction, and at least 100 more planned, according to the most recent World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Next in line is India, which has 21 working reactors, six under construction, and at least 18 more planned for the near future.
Here in the U.S., we’re not keeping pace. Though we’ve recently ended an unofficial 30-year moratorium on building new plants, we’re only constructing four new reactors, and all of them have suffered major setbacks because natural gas is so inexpensive. (Cheap gas prices are also a problem for existing nuclear power plants in the country; 14 reactors have closed since 2012.)
Other than that, the rest of our fleet is getting really old. And old things suffer from wear and tear.
The NRC licenses plants for 40 years, and then allows plant owners to apply for 20-year extensions. But as many nuclear experts point out, that doesn’t mean every plant is capable of working for 60 years. While some parts of a power plant can be replaced — certain pumps or the steam generator, for instance — some of the most critical parts, like the reactor pressure vessel, have to hold up.
“In terms of the safety of extending a license, there’s nothing magical about 40, 60, or even 80 years; it was just the way the process was set up,” explains Matthew McKinzie, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear program. “No reactor has closed because its license was up,” he adds, explaining closures have only ever been for economic reasons.
(Full disclosure: I interned briefly with the environmental magazine On Earth, which, while published by the NRDC, remains journalistically independent.)
“The reactors in the U.S. have an average age of 36 years. Most of them were built in the ’70s and early ’80s, so the technology in these reactors is a technology that predates a lot of modern tools we use,” McKinzie says. “Control rooms may look a little retro [and] the electronics are mostly analog, but nevertheless, I’d say for the last 20 years, not much has changed in terms of nuclear energy in the country.”
But right now is a time of change, he adds, meaning we have some important decisions to make.
While we still have some of the best nuclear physicists in the world, we are in no way setting ourselves up to be a future leader in nuclear technology. Many I spoke with in the industry said this was a real shame, particularly because the engineering world is on the precipice of developing all sorts of safer and more efficient reactors.
From small modular reactors (known as SMRs), which are basically mini reactors that will be cheaper to make and hopefully safer to operate, to advances in reprocessing spent fuel, there’s a possibility that in a few decades, the nuclear landscape could look totally different.
And that’s not even getting into nuclear fusion, which is a whole separate topic. Unlike nuclear fission, which harnesses energy from splitting atoms, nuclear fusion harnesses energy from combining atoms. It also doesn’t create nuclear waste. There’s currently a big multinational effort based in France to develop a fusion reactor, though it will likely be many more decades until the technology is commercially viable.
Meanwhile, the next generation of fission reactors also looks really promising. On the whole, they’ll be safer and more structurally sound, says Pedro Peralta, an engineering professor at ASU who received a Department of Energy grant in 2014 to study innovative nuclear technologies.
The next generation of nuclear reactors will have fewer parts, which will make them easier to build, easier to operate, and much safer, he says, explaining that the fewer moving parts a machine has, the less chance there is for something to fail.
Scientists are also working on improving the efficiency of nuclear fuel so that it will last longer inside a reactor and produce less waste, and they’re experimenting with accident-tolerant fuel, which will be able to withstand exposure to air for many hours before it starts to melt down.
“That’s all going on right now,” Peralta says, clearly excited.
The people working on these projects hope they’ll be ready in 10 to 20 years, he adds, but whether that happens has a lot to do with politics. In other words, it will happen if Congress wants it to happen, and if it allocates the money to research and development.
“My generation grew up with atomic bomb testing, and we used to do drills where we had to get under our desks,” Bob Bement, executive vice president of Palo Verde, tells me recently. (He received a promotion earlier this year, and on October 31, 2016, will become executive vice president and chief nuclear officer at Palo Verde.)
Bement, who is 61 and wears thin, wire-framed glasses, pauses for a moment before adding, “Hopefully, your generation will be different.”
I sat in the cluttered, cozy common room-kitchen-library of the Yadoya Guesthouse for Backpackers in the Nakano neighborhood of Tokyo, waiting for 22-year-old Sawako Kubo to finish her shift at the front desk of the hostel so we could talk about nuclear power, when Allie Derwin, 22, and Dan Dickson, 29, a couple from Winnipeg, Manitoba, walked in.
They’re wearing sweaty clothes and carrying fold-up bicycles. Derwin, who is tall with short, brown hair, leans her bike against an empty wall and hops up onto an elevated bench in the far corner of the room. A few moments later, Dickson, who is stocky with a thick brown beard and small gap between his two front teeth, puts his bike down, too, and joins her on the bench.
They smile at me and we start chatting. They tell me about their three-month plan to bike across Japan, and I explain that I’m here for a story I’m writing about nuclear power.
“Oh, I’m a big proponent of nuclear energy,” Dickson says, wiping a bit of sweat from his forehead. “In terms of energy output and efficiency, it’s one of the best.”
“What about the potential for accidents?” I ask.
“Whenever you move up in higher energies — think fire to gas to nuclear — there’s always more risk,” he replies.
I look up from taking notes to notice Derwin staring at him with a slightly bemused yet confused look on her face, an expression that makes me think she’s waiting for the right moment to jump in.
“[Nuclear power] has a very large, negative connotation because it was weaponized really early on. And while it’s getting better, it still has a ways to go. Like gas pipes leak, nuclear power can have problems too,” he continues.
“It’s easy to say that when it’s not in your province and your energy comes from elsewhere,” Derwin blurts out.
He looks at her and smiles. “I think it comes down a lot to people’s backgrounds. People that don’t have a science background tend to think it’s bad and should be deterred. People with a science background think differently about it,” he says. Dickson has an engineering background, and spent a few years after college working for the local government, but is now back in school studying medicine at the University of Winnipeg.
Derwin nods in approval. “Science people like Dan see it from an objective angle. People from a human sciences background, well, we pay attention to the human aspects and environmental aspects,” she says in a way that makes it clear this science versus humanities conversation is one they have often. Derwin studied criminology and psychology in college, and is currently a law student at the University of Manitoba.
“I can tell you there’s been more destruction from petroleum,” Dickson says.
“Yeah, but with nuclear, when things go wrong, they go really wrong,” she counters.
Because we are in Japan, the conversation inevitably shifts to the 2011 accident at Fukushima-Daiichi. Dickson says that he remembers many in his circle of friends and coworkers talking about how after the accident, they still believed nuclear power is a viable, smart policy that shouldn’t be discounted.
“It’s a testament to how well [the Fukushima-Daiichi plant] was built that it wasn’t another Chernobyl,” he says.
I ask Derwin what she remembers from the time period after the accident.
“The conversations I had were mostly, ‘Why aren’t we using other natural energies?’” she replies.
I heard some form of these two arguments again and again throughout Japan — hell, I’ve even debated the same things in my own head. Should we strive to phase out and eventually abandon nuclear power, like Germany is currently doing? Should we do it even if it means increasing CO2 emissions? Or should we admit that the nuclear industry and nuclear regulators made some very big mistakes in the past, but that we can, and must, learn from them and improve?
Then again, like Derwin says, it’s one thing to weigh the consequences of a nuclear accident in the abstract, but it’s a different story when the power plant is practically in your backyard.
In the last year, I’ve thought often about what would happen if something goes wrong at the Palo Verde plant in Tonopah, Arizona. What if there’s a big earthquake or an enormous flash flood? What if there’s a massive fire or some sort of terrorist attack? What if there’s just some series of totally unlikely events that somehow happen simultaneously, as was the case at Fukushima?
While theoretically there are an endless number of events or combinations of events that could trigger an accident, what’s not theoretical is that if an accident did occur, there are at least 2 million people living within 50 miles of the plant.
The Japanese were lucky in the sense that the wind was blowing toward the ocean; had it been blowing toward Tokyo, well, put it this way: 38 million people live in metro Tokyo.
Back in Arizona, if a major accident happened at Palo Verde and the wind was blowing toward the northeast at 10 miles per hour — a speed most meteorologists classify as “breezy” — downtown Phoenix could be irradiated in about 4.5 hours.
The Nuclear Question, Part Three: Checking Out Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station
It’s unclear exactly when the metal pipe first cracked. But sometime in 2013, one of the three reactors at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station sprung a leak. A small amount of radioactive water escaped.
According to news reports from the time, operators of the plant — the largest in the nation, located 45 miles from downtown Phoenix — discovered the problem during a routine maintenance check in early October. A remote camera inspecting the reactor had picked up on some white residue crusted around a metal pipe welded to the exterior base of the reactor vessel. Tests revealed that the white substance was boric acid, which is present in the water circulating around the uranium fuel rods, and therefore hinted that water had leaked. (The superheated water would have immediately evaporated.)
Plant leaders and the public-relations team from Arizona Public Service (which owns the majority stake in the plant and manages day-to-day operations) reported the situation to the media, highlighting the fact that the leak was tiny, able to be repaired, and that there was no evidence that anyone working at the plant had been harmed. And in the end, though the repair cost millions of dollars and kept the reactor offline for an extra few weeks, the situation was resolved.
But what if no one had noticed the leak?
That’s a question that still plagues Dr. Dean Kyne, who mapped the path and speed of a radioactive plume escaping from Palo Verde for his 2013 Ph.D dissertation at Arizona State University.
“The severity of any such accident and its negative impacts on the lives of the people living in the nearby communities would be difficult to overestimate,” he concluded.
Depending on the weather, thousands of people could be exposed to radiation within a few hours, and millions within a day. Peoples’ front yards, the local playgrounds, farmlands, public parks — you name it, they could be blanketed with radiation and possibly remain poisonous for decades. Cleanup efforts, medical costs, a sharp drop in local tourism and trade — the economic costs of a severe accident at Palo Verde are nearly impossible to predict.
Kyne says he became interested in nuclear power a decade earlier, when he was living in Pennsylvania and his wife developed thyroid problems. Turns out, their house was a few miles away from the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station.
Though he was never able to establish a connection between where they lived and his wife’s medical problems, he started wondering what would happen if there were a big nuclear accident at a power plant. When he moved to Arizona a few years later, he decided to find out.
Kyne used a computer program to simulate the consequences of a radioactive plume during various weather conditions. In one of the four scenarios, the plume moves southeast with the wind, covering about 3,477 square miles in 24 hours, and affecting 666,543 people in the cities of Buckeye, Goodyear, Maricopa, Florence, Coolidge, and Case Grande. In another, the plume moves northeast, and in one day, covers 3,702 square miles and affects 3.5 million people in the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, Gilbert, Chandler, Buckeye, Guadalupe, Queen Creek, Florence, Tolleson, Avondale, Apache Junction, and Paradise Valley.
Try to imagine it: an invisible cloud of poisonous radiation floating across the Valley. It’s like something straight out of a movie.
The good news is that Kyne’s calculations show that few, if any, people would receive a lethal dose of radiation — though, it should be noted, the jury is still out on whether small doses are actually harmless.
The bad news is that when I talked to Kyne recently, he reiterated that while a meltdown and release of radioactivity may be unlikely, it’s certainly not impossible.
“If [the crack] didn’t stop, or grew, and it let a lot of water out, then it could have been a big problem,” he says. “They said that it is a minor leak, but it was a major problem: the most dangerous thing. If that continued going unnoticed and became a big crack, what would happen? All the fuel would melt. It could be an accident similar to Chernobyl, similar to Fukushima.”
In other words, if enough water leaked from the reactor, the fuel rods could become exposed and begin melting into a molten blob capable of eating through the reactor floor. What’s more, there could be a huge explosion from inside the reactor, because the fuel rods are made from zircaloy, a zirconium alloy that reacts dangerously with water when it gets really hot. The metal robs water molecules of oxygen, leaving only hydrogen, which, you may remember from chemistry class, is highly explosive. The slightest spark or flame could trigger a blast, just like it did at multiple reactors in Fukushima.
“The most dangerous problem [at a nuclear power plant] is nuclear meltdown. We are so lucky they found the leak, that they noticed it when they did,” Kyne says. “Once the fuel melts down, the radiation levels get so high you can’t even approach [the reactor].”
No one really knows what would have happened had the crack not been found. And as unlikely a scenario as a meltdown is, given that many other monitors and instruments would also have had to malfunction with no one noticing, when it comes to nuclear accidents, history has taught us not to rule out anything.
After I read Kyne’s dissertation, I started wondering what a nuclear accident at Palo Verde would mean for me and my friends and everyone else in the Phoenix area.
Would we be doused with enough radiation to make our skin blister and burn or to give us acute radiation poisoning? It’s very unlikely.
Would we be ordered to evacuate? Maybe.
Would we be able to get out before we received any heightened dose of radiation? It’s certainly possible.
The decision to evacuate a given area is a complicated one that’s based on multiple things: the weather, radiation measurements, and group meetings with local elected officials and government experts, to name a few. All of these things take time, Kyne says. Imagine that there’s a 10 mph breeze. If it took an hour for all the state and local responders to react to the problem and come up with a plan — a time period Kyne believes is already optimistic — the 9,257 people living within 10 miles of the plant could already be exposed to radiation.
And then consider all of the compounding factors that could complicate an evacuation plan: flooded or blocked highways, public panic, severe weather.
“There are many, many problems … and so many things are not feasible to do,” Kyne says. “It sounds like I’m really pessimistic, but I’m more realistic than pessimistic. This is really alarming for me.”
You can’t rule out the unexpected, says Palo Verde executive vice president Bob Bement. “Human error is going to affect whatever humans touch.”
Earlier this fall, I sat at a large conference table inside the State Emergency Operation Center by Papago Park with representatives from the state Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA), the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency, and the Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management to learn more about the response plans for a nuclear accident at Palo Verde. About 15 minutes into our meeting, I can already sense that everyone at the table is getting a little frustrated by my endless questions about evacuation plans.
I press hard, dreaming up incredibly unlikely events, and asking what would happen if X, Y, and Z went wrong: “What if you gave an evacuation order and the roads were blocked? What if there was a severe weather situation? What if all communication was down or the public started panicking?”
“We have a lot of experience with evacuations. We evacuate regularly for fires and floods,” Matthew Heckard, DEMA’s radiological emergency preparedness manager, responds calmly. “If a route is blocked, there is another route.”
While Heckard goes on to talk about how the Arizona Department of Transportation would work to perfect the flow of traffic, I can’t help but glance at the cardboard poster sitting in the center of the table. It’s a map with Palo Verde at the center, overlaid with a bull’s eye of concentric circles representing 10-mile distances from the plant.
Who will house these millions of people? And where? Who will make sure people get the necessary medical attention? And should a radioactive release occur, what will the cleanup effort look like? Who will pay for it all? I wonder in my head. When I get a chance to ask some of these questions later in our meeting, those around the table either respond theoretically or by telling me there’s no way to calculate an answer.
If you want to compare it to something, though, consider the following:
The cleanup effort after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania, in which almost no radiation was released, took about 12 years and is estimated to have cost about $973 million.
The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that affected areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia has no official price tag, but is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars — Belarus alone estimates losses around $235 billion.
And the 2011 accident at the Japanese Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is estimated to have cost $133 billion so far, though the cleanup and resettlement process is far from over, and the plant is still leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.
“I understand the movie scenarios and why that’s attractive to chase that down. I understand why it’s tempting to think about ‘What if we had a major terrorist attack?’ But those things are planned for,” Heckard says, adding that in the movies, emergency-response networks rarely coordinate, if they’re mentioned at all.
“Remember that we’re talking about plans. Plans provide us with a framework; they do not answer every contingency,” he continues. “There is no plan written that can give you an answer to every question that will arise.”
As someone who was still on the fence about nuclear power, I went to the meeting feeling confident about nuclear safety, but left feeling a bit less safe knowing that I live about 50 miles from Palo Verde.
I understand that experts draw up flexible frameworks for a disaster response, but I wanted to know exactly what would happen after a nuclear accident, and exactly how they will prevent all of my friends in the area from getting sick or stuck in the city.
A few days later, I meet with Dr. Keith Holbert, a professor of nuclear engineering at ASU. Near the end of our two-hour interview, Holbert, a middle-age man with reddish-brown hair and a thick mustache, smiles when I ask him point-blank whether I should ignore any safety concerns I have, and support nuclear power because of its potential to mitigate the effects of climate change.
He begins by pointing out that there are a lot of people who are afraid of flying and would prefer to drive, even though they are far more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash. It’s all about the perception of risk, he says, and for him, the risks associated with climate change far outweigh those associated with nuclear power.
“Unless we want to go back to being cave people, we’re going to have to embrace nuclear. That’s just the truth of the matter,” he says. “And remember, the longer we keep our heads buried in the sand, the bigger the problem gets.”
When you drive out to Tonopah to visit Palo Verde, one of the things you’ll notice is that there is very little development near the plant. After you get off Interstate 10 at Exit 98, you drive seven miles down a long, two-lane road that cuts through a shrubby valley. You’ll pass a few houses, a gas station, and a general store on your way, but not much else.
I sit in the passenger’s seat alongside Jim McDonald, Arizona Public Service communications manager, and think about Fukushima. I try to image what a similar cleanup effort would look like here — they’d remove the small shrubs, no doubt, but what about the iconic saguaros? (When I asked DEMA, the state agency that would be in charge of decontamination, I was told, “Removal of radioactive debris would be dependent on a number of factors … Items that were deemed to pose [a threat] would be removed from the area and disposed of in accordance with established, applicable laws and regulations.”)
Looking ahead at the monotony of pavement and shrubs, I begin wondering what an evacuation from the plant would look like. I start dreaming up accident scenarios that would hinder such an effort and ask McDonald what would happen.
“What if there’s a downed power line and a big fire that blocks this road?” I ask.
Even though he’s clearly already a little less than amused by my constant tendency to turn every question into one about a worst-case, apocalyptic scenario, he dutifully answers that if an evacuation order was necessary, there shouldn’t be any problem getting people out of the area safely because there are two roads in and out of the plant.
“What about earthquakes, flash floods, dust storms,” I continue, “or a break in the water line?” Without missing a beat, he begins listing off and describing all the backup water supplies on-site.
If there’s one thing people at Palo Verde are defensive about, it’s anyone questioning their complex, multilayered system to ensure the plant has enough water. It’s an understandable sensitivity, given that Palo Verde is the only nuclear power plant in the country not near a large, above-ground body of water, and having enough water could be the difference between a near-miss accident and a total nuclear meltdown.
From the very beginning, the water supply at Palo Verde was a major concern for the public, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided that the plant’s plan to treat and use municipal wastewater was sufficient, and approved the license in 1976.
The plant took 12 years to build and cost $5.9 billion, and these days it produces 35 percent of all electricity generated in Arizona and 85 percent of all non-fossil-fuel electricity generated in the state.
To meet its tremendous cooling needs, the plant purchases 26 billion gallons of recycled wastewater from the cities of Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, and Tolleson every year. The water is pumped to the plant, purified on-site, and then stored in two uncovered ponds capable of holding 760 million gallons of water.
After the water from these ponds is used to cool the steam that’s passed through the turbine, it flows into one of nine cooling towers, those big circular structures that release steam into the air. The cooling towers at Palo Verde have big fans on the roof, and essentially act as giant swamp coolers, allowing some water to evaporate off while cooling the rest so it can be cycled through again.
There are other sources of water at the plant that could be used in an emergency, McDonald said. In all, Palo Verde has about 3.2 billion gallons of water stored on-site at any given time, plus the ability to pump extra groundwater if need be.
Listening to McDonald talk about the various supplies of water on-site, I had a nagging feeling.
I wanted to trust them when they said there is enough water on-site to keep everything operating at full capacity for two weeks — by which point more water surely would be brought in — but I couldn’t stop thinking about Fukushima.
Though the Fukushima-Daiichi plant was right on the ocean, one thing the accident demonstrated is that having a lot of water on hand is different from the ability to get it where you need it to be.
No one I spoke with at the plant or at ASU seems worried.
Just as 9/11 radically changed how we perceive the threat of terrorism and led to a massive new push for security, the triple meltdown at Fukushima changed how the U.S. nuclear industry viewed the threat of a worst-case scenario.
“We went back and evaluated the plant for external events like flooding, seismic activity, high and low temperatures, high winds, dust storms. We spent millions of dollars on these evaluations,” says Bob Bement, executive vice president at Palo Verde.
All three units at the plant have also been retroactively upgraded to withstand a magnitude 8 earthquake, even though earthquakes in Arizona rarely even register as a magnitude 5.
Maybe I fell prey to industry propaganda, but as I toured Palo Verde with Bement and a few other plant workers, the number of new post-Fukushima safety enhancements really did impress me.
Should the plant lose external power, there are two emergency diesel generators for each unit. And should those malfunction, there are backup “station blackout” (SBO) diesel generators. If those didn’t work, there are batteries capable of safely powering the plant’s cooling systems for 72 hours.
In other words, Bement says, “should we lose the seven feeds of power we have from off-site, the diesel generators, and the SBO generators, we could go for 72 hours without outside power.” (In the case of Fukushima, after the tsunami destroyed the diesel generators, each unit had a battery capable of lasting eight hours.)
Another problem at Fukushima was the inability of workers to sufficiently pump high-pressured water into the reactors and spent fuel pools. The nuclear industry came up with a solution called “diverse and flexible coping strategies,” or FLEX, in December 2011, and the NRC approved it.
At Palo Verde, like plants across the country, the portable FLEX equipment includes backup generators, pumps, compressors, hoses, and other emergency items that might become necessary to keep the cooling equipment functioning. The four sets of FLEX equipment at Palo Verde are stored in warehouses that sit atop a concrete platform built one foot above the 100-year flood line and have multiple access points in case one or more doors became jammed or blocked.
Additionally, should all of these systems fail, there are five extra sets of FLEX equipment stored at an emergency-response center in Phoenix ready to be transported by truck or helicopter. (There are two of these $40 million regional response centers in the country, one in Phoenix and another in Memphis, Tennessee.)
To make these centers work, industry representatives also agreed to another costly safety measure: standardizing all electrical and mechanical hookups so that any piece of equipment could be transported and shared nationwide.
If you tour Palo Verde, the one word you hear again and again is “redundancy.” That said, it should come as no surprise that everyone working at the plant paints a generally rosy picture of the safety culture and new disaster protocols. I wondered what others had to say.
“The rationale for FLEX is that if enough equipment is scattered in enough different locations, there would be working equipment available in the event of an emergency, no matter what calamity befell the plant and its surroundings. The basic concept is ‘more pumps,’ but not necessarily ‘better pumps,’ Edwin Lyman of the nonprofit advocacy and watchdog group the Union for Concerned Scientists wrote in a 2013 blog post.
I found Lyman’s comment very disturbing, but when I spoke with his colleague David Lochbaum, I got a different answer.
As it turned out, Lochbaum had toured Palo Verde a few weeks earlier.
“I would say Palo Verde exceeded my expectations, and I’m about as skeptical as they come. When I visit plants, it’s very seldom that I come away without something to gripe about,” he said.
“I didn’t see anything that led me to believe they were doing things on the cheap. Not that I expected to see that, but plant owners are facing tough times economically, so it’s often tempting to do something on the cheap. Palo Verde seems to recognize that it will cost you down the line … It’s rarer and rarer to see that.”
Curious, I ask Keith Holbert, the nuclear engineer at ASU, about post-Fukushima changes and whether there were any obvious faults in the plant design or safety system.
He pauses for a moment, as if he was thinking hard about the question, before saying that he couldn’t think of any faults per se.
“Maybe the fault is that people still make mistakes in how they manufacture things,” he says. “Some events can’t be predicted.”
And when it comes to nuclear, I suppose that’s sort of the point.
“Before Fukushima, the thought was that if there was a problem, it would only be at one reactor. Fukushima taught us that there are certain things that could put all reactors at risk,” Lochbaum tells me. “That’s the challenge — planning for things you don’t think could happen.”
If you want to talk about nuclear power, you can’t ignore the externalities, says Travis Stills, an environmental policy lawyer based in southern Colorado.
As far as he’s concerned, the biggest issues are uranium mining, milling, and radioactive waste disposal. All three, he explains, cause problems to human health and leave a lot of radioactive waste.
After you extract the uranium from the ground, “you’re left with giant tailings piles and powdered waste that needs to be put into sealed containment pools forever,” Stills says, adding that it’s similar in that sense to the waste produced from nuclear power.
“Why are we producing something that we don’t have a way to contain and dispose of? There is no answer yet. There are [only] proposals.”
Part of the problem, at least in the U.S., is that figuring out a long-term solution will require a bipartisan political breakthrough, because the old plan to build a central nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is probably going nowhere. Meanwhile, all of the commercial nuclear waste in the country is actually just stored on-site at power plants.
“Basically, you have waste sitting all over the U.S. that hasn’t been dealt with, and if you look at the totality of this, it’s hard to wrap your head around it because you see all of these unaddressed problems,” says Sarah Fields of the environmental group Uranium Watch. “They’re making it up as they go along. They don’t want to look forward, because if they do, they see possible bumps in the road.”
The obvious rebuttal to Stills and Fields’ argument, and one that I heard from nuclear proponents, is that one, all forms of energy, even renewables, have negative externalities; and two, the amount of waste generated from nuclear power is incredibly small compared to fossil fuels — it’s estimated that if the U.S. were to get all of its power from nuclear, each person would generate about a soda can’s worth of waste during his or her lifetime.
I always understood nuclear waste to be this terribly huge problem with no solution, but after looking into it more — and learning about some of the new technologies being developed to reprocess waste — I’m a little less concerned.
“The question is, ‘Can we get past the next 20 years and keep nuclear power around until these new technologies are around?’” says Jack Cadogan, senior vice president of site operations at Palo Verde. “Hopefully, young people like yourself can get us across that finish line.”
Listen, I wish I could tell you whether waste is as big of an issue as people like Fields and Stills say it is, or whether it’s been exaggerated for political reasons like nuclear proponents often say. But I can’t.
What I can tell you, however, is that in the aftermath of Fukushima, the NRC has instructed the nuclear industry to hasten the pace by which it transfers used fuel rods from spent fuel pools to dry casks because they’re considered a safer means of long-term storage. (None of the dry casks at Fukushima were harmed because of the earthquake and tsunami.)
Dry casks are big cement and metal storage containers that, in theory, can protect “cooler” spent nuclear fuel — i.e., fuel that’s been cooled in a spent fuel pool for seven to 10 years — for a very long time. They’re about 19 feet tall and 11 feet wide, and look like big cement cylinders.
At Palo Verde, there are 138 of them sitting on a concrete slab inside a fenced-off area near the plant. The plant fills four casks about every six months, and has plenty of room for many more decades’ worth of waste, should the country fail to approve a central waste repository, plant operators tell me.
Still, to Stills and other nuclear power opponents I spoke with, dry storage isn’t a solution; it’s at best a Band-Aid.
You can debate nuclear power all you want, he says, “whether it’s good, bad, or otherwise. But until you figure out a way to clean up your mess, no more.”
Before this story, I assumed that if we just put more effort into scaling up renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, we could solve all of our energy problems. If we could just get over our love affair with fossil fuels and start putting money and resources into more research, or if we subsidized and incentivized clean energies the way we currently do for the coal and petroleum industries, I thought, we’d be set.
I know for a fact that I wasn’t alone in this thinking. People have been making these arguments in one form or another since at least the 1970s, and it’s still the official line of the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, EarthFirst, and most other prominent environmental groups.
But the fact is, the more you dig into this, the more apparent it becomes that renewables alone might not be a panacea.
Believe me, I know it’s basically environmental heresy to consider, let alone suggest, that renewables aren’t the be-all, end-all solution. And believe me, I’m still a little uncomfortable with the thought myself. But what I’ve realized is that if I’m truly concerned about climate change, it’s something I might just have to get over.
We have two choices: We can continue burning fossil fuels, or we can go nuclear, I was told again and again this last year by experts. And make no mistake, they reiterated, rejecting nuclear power means you’re tacitly supporting the burning of fossil fuels.
That said, I think it’s critical to point out two important things. First, nuclear power has about the same overall carbon footprint as solar and wind (all of which are far, far less than coal); and second, I’ve yet to come across anyone who advocates for nuclear power but is against renewables. Many people, even at Palo Verde, told me a combination of the two is ideal.
“The thing about renewables is that it’s very, very hard to make them work and provide what people want,” says Peter Rez, professor of physics at ASU. “If people just want to run appliances when the sun is shining, we can make it work,” he adds, hinting at the obvious: This isn’t the case.
Rez is currently writing a book about the shortcomings of renewable technologies and explains that their two biggest problems are intermittency and energy density.
Intermittency refers to the fact that the sun isn’t always out and the wind isn’t always blowing, and that as it stands, we haven’t figured out a way to build a battery capable of solving this problem. “Until you have low-cost, long-term, large-scale energy storage, renewables will have a very limited role,” he says.
The second problem, power density, refers to the amount of energy able to be extracted from a given area. When you consider the amount of energy you can get from an acre of solar panels or wind farms, it pales in comparison to how much energy you can get from the same amount of land devoted to coal or nuclear power.
Nuclear power is actually the most energy-dense source of power we have because it relies on a very energy-dense fuel. One uranium pellet, which is about the size of your fingertip, contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil.
But ask critics of nuclear power about these problems, and they’ll counter that scientists are constantly figuring out how to make batteries larger and larger, and that a combination of energy efficiency and large-scale solar and wind farms make the issue of energy density moot.
I certainly can’t tell you which side to believe, but I can tell you that when pro-nuclear environmentalist Mark Lynas did the math, he figured out that meeting our global energy needs with renewables would require 386,000 square miles of wind farms (an area the size of Texas and New Mexico) and another 19,305 square miles of solar power plants (an area slightly larger than Indiana).
As for energy efficiency, “while it’s clearly a good idea in both theory and practice — you get more services per unit of energy — expecting this combination to actually reduce overall energy use is a different matter. Historically, greater efficiency tends to accompany an increase in overall energy use,” Lynas writes in his 2014 book, Nuclear 2.0.
“It stretches credulity to argue, as most Greens still do, that solar and wind on their own can supply enough power to a rapidly growing civilization to solve climate change on the diminishing timescales we have left,” he concludes.
Over the course of the months I spent reporting this story, I listened to a lot of nuclear power critics talk about the improbability of any of the new and much-heralded nuclear technologies coming on to the market anytime soon. I also listened to a lot of nuclear supporters who are dubious about our ability to make batteries capable of solving solar and wind’s intermittency problems in the next few years.
And I wondered, yet again, who should I believe?
I really went back and forth, and with each new interview I did, I felt like I wasn’t getting closer to a satisfying answer. But then, I started thinking about the fact that energy production isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s also a political issue.
Look no further than Arizona to see this in action. By any account, the state could be getting more of its power from solar energy, but it’s not, in large part because our current energy policy doesn’t favor renewable energy. Make no mistake, decisions about tax credits and subsidies are political ones.
Now, as a millennial, do I believe this is something worth fighting to change? In my opinion, yes. Does it mean we should conclude that we don’t need to invest in nuclear now because we’ll have better solar policies and products in the future?
I’m not sold.
From what I can tell, if we want to substantially reduce our carbon emissions, we have three options. We can figure out a way to build batteries capable of storing power from renewable sources, we can figure out a way to make fossil fuels less dirty, or we can embrace nuclear power.
The reality is, climate change is already causing problems, and nuclear is the only one of those three options that currently exists.
There’s a scene I can’t get out of my head from Pandora’s Promise, a 2013 documentary about the nuclear power debate and environmentalists who were once anti-nuclear but have since changed their minds.
In this scene, British environmentalist Mark Lynas is wearing a white, full-body radiation protection suit and sitting in the back seat of a car about to drive into the contaminated evacuation zone near the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. For most of his life, Lynas had been a vehement and outspoken critic of nuclear power, but like a growing number of environmental leaders, had changed his mind a few years ago after delving into the issue and deciding nuclear power was the only realistic way to slow down climate change.
But then the accident at Fukushima happened.
With a Geiger counter beeping furiously in the background, the cameraman focuses in on Lynas’ worried face.
“Even if it’s not massively contaminated, it’s contaminated enough that no one can look you in the eye and say you shouldn’t be worried,” he says, nodding toward the empty land outside the vehicle.
“There’s no other energy source that does this, that leaves huge areas contaminated by this strange, invisible presence which you know is potentially deadly. Everything has its drawbacks, everything has its risks, but this is something unique to nuclear.”
The camera cuts, and in the next scene, we see Lynas squatting on the ground in a parking lot a few miles from the plant; he’s holding a Geiger counter. He watches the number on the screen rise, and tells the cameraman that this lot is one of the hottest spots in the area.
Asked by the cameraman if he’s still pro-nuclear, Lynas lets out a nervous laugh.
“I would say I’m having a wobble,” he says. “I could see why we’d want to do away with nuclear power — I really can.”
A wobble, yes. A series of wobbles, even. This is the perfect way to describe what this past year has felt like.
It’s hard to be totally on board with nuclear power when you’ve walked through the crumbling homes and schools in Pripyat, the city turned ghost town near the Chernobyl power plant. It’s hard to feel confident about nuclear safety when you’ve seen the black plastic sacks filled with contaminated soil just sitting in enormous rows and piles along the roadside in Fukushima, and you know that 92,600 people remain displaced five years after the meltdown.
But it’s weird to think about commercial nuclear power as a dangerous and deadly technology when a doctor in Japan has told you that ever since the 2011 accident, childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed in Fukushima prefecture, because parents are too afraid to let their children play outside, even though there’s little to no risk of radiation exposure.
It’s also hard to be against nuclear power when you start thinking about the impact of unabated climate change: By 2030, climate change and carbon pollution will cumulatively kill about 6 million people per year, according to a 2012 study commissioned by 20 countries. If the sea levels rise by six feet, as scientists currently predict will happen, at least 36 U.S. cities and 2 million homes will be underwater. And then there’s disease, famine, severe storms, drought, clean water shortages, and impending resource wars.
“Nuclear power is like gun control; it’s so polarizing. No matter what you say, both sides hate you, and accuse you of being a pawn of the industry or a radical environmentalist,” says journalist Martin Fackler.
“The debate becomes so unappealing. People are convinced they have the moral high ground. It’s like debating religion; it’s that level of debate. Everyone pretends they have clear answers, but in fact, they’re as driven by morals as anything else. You don’t know who is right.”
Even as I write this, I can’t help but have a little wobble. If my conclusion is to embrace nuclear, have I drank the industry Kool-Aid? If I conclude nuclear is bad, am I just being naive and making the problem worse?
As millennials, we didn’t live through WWII and the nuclear tests of the 1950s like our grandparents. We didn’t live through the Cold War and Three Mile Island like our parents. Most of us weren’t born when Chernobyl happened, and only a few of us probably remember Fukushima clearly.
But what we definitely will remember is the damage coal does to our health, atmosphere, and environment. An estimated 5.5 million people currently die every year from air pollution, according to a recent study cited by the BBC.
Many experts say rejecting nuclear power means accepting that statistic as the status quo moving forward.
A few days after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, addressed the U.S. Congress.
“I understand your concern, because I share it, that people are seeing what’s happening in Japan and they’re scared. We can never say that that could never happen here. There’s no such thing as a probability of zero,” he began.
“But what I would tell you is it doesn’t matter how you get there, whether it’s a hurricane, a tsunami, whether it’s a seismic event, whether it’s a terrorist attack, whether it’s a cyber attack, whether it’s operator error or some other failure in the plant, it doesn’t matter.”
I certainly can’t tell you how to feel about nuclear power, but what I can offer you is something ASU Professor Pedro Peralta told me, while I sat in his office earlier this fall to discuss the future of nuclear power.
“Hindsight is 20/20. And one of the sad things is failures will occur. Human errors will occur; we’re not infallible. [Those] who say otherwise are fooling themselves and others,” he began. “Lessons will be learned because nature will remind us, in time, that we don’t know everything. And the important thing is to take this to heart, and know that we did the best we could.”
He’s right. Nuclear power is not a perfect solution, but living in an imperfect world means making imperfect decisions. And for me, doing the best we can as a society probably means accepting the risk and embracing nuclear power.
“It’s not bad to be reminded of what it means to be human,” Peralto says. “It comes with many facets, not all of them are good.”
**Editor's Note: This story has been updated from its original version to reflect the fact that the Exclusion Zone is shaped like a circle with a 30-kilometer radius, Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors, and SPEEDI is a Japanese government computer system.