Obama needs to get real on nuclear crisis

It’s highly disappointing that the best leadership President Barack Obama can display on the nuclear catastrophe in Japan is to offer boilerplate assurances about the safety of nuclear power when what we see on TV doesn’t look very safe at all.

The president said in TV interviews yesterday that U.S. nuclear facilities are safe and designed to withstand earthquakes.

Sometimes, I wish we could just pause and try to understand these disasters that befall us and what lessons we can learn from them without politicians trying to cut off meaningful discussion by running around making mindless defenses of their pet special interests before all the facts are even known.

In this case, it seems insanity not to take a moment to question whether we’re trying to harness a deadly power that simply cannot be safely harnessed for the long term. Systems are going to fail. People are going to screw up. Great earthquakes and other natural disasters are going to happen.

The scary thing is that Japan is one of the most technologically adept nations. There are countries building nuclear facilities for power and weapons that barely have the expertise to tie their technological shoelaces.

Obama blithely argued that all energy technologies have their dangers, pointing to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

With all due respect to the long-suffering Gulf Coast residents, if the worst happens at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex — full meltdown of the six reactors — it could cause a worldwide health, environmental and economic disaster that dwarfs the gulf oil spill.

The unprecedented catastrophe in Japan is providing valuable new information about the risk side of the nuclear power equation. To respond with political babble instead of thoughtful analysis is  irresponsible.

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27 Comments on “Obama needs to get real on nuclear crisis”

  1. Earl of Sandwich Says:

    In a situation like this, it’s probably best to reassure the public rather than cause a panic about the nuclear plant that might be next door. The Dept. of Energy can evaluate the integrity of the nation’s nuclear energy facilities, and they probably will. Right now, people need to hear “it is safe” and not “it might be safe.”

  2. OahuSophist Says:

    Thanks for this, Dave. I completely agree with you.

    That Obama seems inclined to gloss over, or ignore the fact that Japan’s nuclear power plants were also “safe and designed to withstand earthquakes,” in a country that took very seriously the threat of the very kind of earthquake that has now laid waste to the country.

    Even in a country, such as Japan, where they did their due diligence and believed they planned for every contingency, mother nature ultimately surprised them. The seawalls they built to protect against tsunamis ultimately weren’t high enough to protect the electrical generators which provided power to redundancy and emergency systems in the power plant. Those generators, believed to be protected by seawalls, were built on low-lying land.

    It seems even with the best of intentions and thorough planning, leave it to a natural disaster to point out the hubris in even the best intended planning.

    And to suggest that what’s most important right now is “reassure” people plays, in my opinion, right into the hands of those who think people can’t handle the truth. I don’t believe it’s more important to reassure people with misleading statements, or outright falsehoods. Now is exactly the time when we, and the government, should be having the conversation about the true safety of nuclear power. What people need to hear is real information, not platitudes.

    I read a report yesterday, I forget the exact source, but it pointed out that we have numerous nuclear plants near fault lines in the U.S. If Japan, a country whose entire infrastructure is built to withstand earthquakes, can suffer a nuclear disaster of this nature, it’s not a matter of IF it will happen in the U.S., but WHEN.

    In the wake of the events unfolding in Japan, Germany has shut down all of its nuclear power plants built before 1980 and the EU has agreed to run “stress tests” on all European facilities. They did this without causing a scare, without any public panic ensuing.

  3. Manoak Says:

    I’m glad you’re running a blog rather than public safety announcements. Everyone has a role to play.

  4. Richard Gozinya Says:

    No doubt Dave was reassured to learn our West Coast nuke plants have been built to withstand a potential 7.0 earthquake. Yun huh. No problem since the bigger earthquakes only happen someplace else.

    No need for a national discussion about this subject. No need to be proactive at all. It’s not like there’s a ring of fire or any cause for urgency. Just keep on consuming,we’ll keep on printing money, we’re the greatest, the greatest, the greatest.

    /Snark off

  5. Guido Sarducci Says:

    This has nothing to do with Obama’s relationship with General Electric. Nothing at all.

  6. Michael Says:

    I won’t worry if our tradewinds keep blowing. I worry most about further progress to Hawaii.

  7. atomicmonkey Says:

    Could it be we’ve found some common ground? http://wp.me/pPXEn-oa

  8. shaftalley Says:

    the main stream media is blowing this nuclear power plant incident way out of proportion just for the viewer and readership ratings.yes,it’s serious but we don’t have all the facts.japan is not cherynobol.don’t panic!!the japanese will stop any and all possible meltdowns.please stay calm.

  9. Peter Kay Says:

    Dave while we have a serious crisis on our hands, what disturbs me is liberal use of the “If” word.

    For example, “if the worst happens at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex — full meltdown of the six reactors”, is a very inflammatory statement that has no basis in even the most remote probability.

    Using those standards, I might as well write a blog post about “Obama needs to get real on the asteroid crisis” and write “if the worst happens – an asteroid the size of Alaska slams into the earth – we will see the obliteration of all life on earth”.

    There is a very good site sponsored by Nuclear Science and Engineering @ MIT which I suggest you follow. http://mitnse.com/ They are journaling a fact-based analysis of the situation. It is serious but it’s definitely not the doomsday scenario “possibility” you’re painting.

    The real tragedy here is the real, immediate danger that millions are facing of starvation, lack of shelter and medical attention and that is being overshadowed by near-hysteria on the nuclear issue.

  10. Kolea Says:

    Peter,

    I fear you are allowing a pro-nuclear energy bias to blind you to what is going on. I have recordings on my DVR of the MIT talking head being used by the networks as an expert and he has been dragged along by events, changing from an official optimist/apologist to someone who is now starting to get worried.

    There have been other “experts” from the nuclear industry all reassuring people that “everything is under control.” But the evolution of “facts on the ground” has gone against their predictions.

    When I went to your MIT link, the top story talks of how they are using helicopters to drop water on Reactor #3 in an effort to cool it down. They have also brought in water cannons, but cannot safely get close enough to reach the reactor. They MAY succeed in cooling the reactors and controlling the situation. But they are struggling DESPERATELY in order to stave off a meltdown. And if ONE of the reactors melts down, the radiation will be too great for mediation work to go on at the other reactors. Meaning if one goes, they will probably all go. The Japanese MAY prevent the meltdown from happening, but right now, it is taking superhuman efforts and will result in the death of many of those workers IF they succeed. I doubt those working, and sacrificing to stop further catastrophic damage would agree with your assurance that a full meltdown “as no basis in even the most remote probability.”

    Yes, people should not panic and the Japanese may be one of the most calm and orderly societies best suited for facing such a crisis.

    For ongoing TV coverage, I strongly recommend MSNBC, particularly Rachel Maddow’s show. Once again, in her coverage and interviews, she demonstrates she might very well be the most smartest news anchor on any channel.

    For w website to explain the science involved, I recommend the site of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Their material is very calmly presented, fact-based and easy to read:

    http://allthingsnuclear.org/tagged/Japan_nuclear?utm_&utm_medium=head&utm_campaign=sp-nuke-head-3%2F13%2F2011-pm

  11. Michael Says:

    What would Americans have done if it were them and not the Japanese? Walk off the job like HECO?

    Japan survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People in Fukushima are more concerned about another Earthquake and Tsunami then a Nuclear Fallout. It takes a lot to survive for those who owned alot and lose everything in just minutes. You don’t hear Japanese grumbling out loud. Many show concern for those still missing and I see alot of people, Praying.

    Before America tells Japan what to do, they should pay off their 600 plus billion dollar debt first. Not pay off 2 cents at a time.

  12. staysafe Says:

    Yeah, let’s stick with the safe technologies that have gotten us the Gulf Oil spill that caused billions in damage, the Exxon Valdez disaster that took out pristine environment, and keeps us embroiled in the Middle East where we have lost hundreds of thousands of lives (not just ours) and trillions of dollars in aid and armament. Oh, sorry, did you mean coal where we just lose coal miners regularly to accidents and pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (I don’t get to use that word much) and also kill tens of thousands of neighbors routinely with pollution — but of course all at a slow and sustained rate so nobody notices?

  13. David Shapiro Says:

    Here’s a little encouraging news that seems to recognize that assuring the public goes beyond platitudes: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110318/ap_on_re_us/us_us_japan

  14. Peter Kay Says:

    Good way for NRC to leverage current crisis to increase safety of all plants.

    To me this is the great tragedy of 3 mile island and most likely Fukushima: had we continued improvement and development of ever-safer technologies (e.g. today’s nuke plant doesn’t require powered-pumping of water to cool the rods) it’s not hard to believe that today we would have been using cheap, plentiful, and extraordinary safe nuclear plants. Instead, we put a full stop on progress and continue burning imported fossil fuels that fund terrorist networks.

  15. Michael Says:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/16/japan-emperor-nuclear-fears

    Japan built the Nuclear Reactor close to the ocean for a purpose. To use the ocean water to cool the Nuclear Reactor.

  16. Kolea Says:

    Peter,

    I remember when they first started promoting nuclear power. Back then, they were making the same promise you are offering: cheap, safe and plentiful. In fact, it was going to be so cheap, they even talked about not bothering to meter its consumption! Didn’t turn out that way. Probably because of the liberals insisting on excessive safety regulations.

    Somehow, the liberals didn’t interfere with the construction of nuclear reactors in Japan. Lucky folks, those Japanese. Freed from excessive government regulation by “nanny-state liberal tree-huggers.”

    Don’t worry, I have it on good authority that a meltdown in Fukushima is about as likely as the earth being slammed by “an asteroid the size of Alaska.”

  17. Peter Kay Says:

    Kolea can you please point out how many deaths and environmental damage, total, have occurred for all worldwide nuke plants combined, including Chernobyl (sp?) and then compare that to total deaths and environmental damage from coal or oil?

    Despite its shaky beginnings, nukes are relatively safe and clean. Despite liberal hand-wringing and Jane Fonda dis-endorsement. Far after the Nukes cool off in Japan, the Left will still be scaremongering us back into stone age sustainability.

    The most puzzling of all is that while the Left claims it “follows the science” while decrying bible-thumping right-wingers, it is the Left which demonstrates undying faith in junk science fantastic claims of imminent world destruction while at the same time doing its best to bring it about. e.g. global cooling, ddt, global warming, cf lightbulbs, and nuclear plants to name a few.

    Lets have a friendly wager. I will bet there will not be a single death due to radioactive contamination from the Japan nuke plants. What’s your estimate?

  18. Kolea Says:

    Peter,

    I am glad you propose to return to a science-based approach to assessing the risks after your science fiction flight of fantasy about the risk of a meltdown in Fukushima being beyond “even the most remote probability.” As I pointed out, you compared the risk to that of “an asteroid the size of Alaska slamming into the earth.”

    That strikes me as EXTREMELY intemperate and at odds with what many “experts” are saying on news sources. I doubt any of your MIT friends would sign onto the comparison of those odds. The chance of a meltdown is very real. That threat is what is , almost-superhuman efforts to combat the crisis. You think NONE of those workers are going to die as a result of their exposure to the radiation?

    Not sure why I am responsible for whatever sins you want to attribute to either “the Left” in general, or Jane Fonda in particular. How’s about you only hold be accountable for what I actually wrote? Or, maybe, for the value of the two information sources I cited, the Union of Concerned Scientists website and the reports on Rachel Maddow’s program?

    And I will resist pointing out that many of the improvements in coal mine safety have been fought for by unions and Democrats, against Republicans and the coal-mine operators who continue to pour money into Republican and Tea Party coffers in order to weaken those very valuable safeguards.

    If I have made any statement here which you think can be characterized as “scaremongering or divorced from science.

    Part of the “scientific approach,” as you surely know, is to not make pronouncements with certitude beyond what the evidence supports. There are so many variables at play here, with dynamic processes at work, that it is difficult to say with any certainty what the likely outcome will be. Based upon “impressions” of the exposure these workers are experiencing, I believe it is very likely many of them will come down with radiation sickness and die. Without knowing the actual level of exposures each is suffering, I hesitate to make a claim like that with certainty. I have no idea how often they are rotated out of harm’s way. I suspect there is a relatively small pool of experienced nuclear workers upon wom the burden is falling. In addition, firefighters and other rescue personnel are being spread thin dealing with the tsunami damage in the North. How much exposure will the firefighters experience. I do not know. Do you? Or are you just buoyed along by your generalized faith in technology?

    Their is a Middle Path between nuclear boosterism, to which I fear you may have been over-exposed and a “Luddite” hostility to technology. I think I am somewhere in the middle. And my reaction to the Fukushima reactor crisis is pretty moderate as well. Nuclear power MAY be capable of providing a good source of energy. But, being a conservative myself, rather than a reactionary like most of today’s Republicans, I believe the burden of proof when the risks are so great, is on advocates of the technology.

    The disaster in Fukushima increases that burden.

  19. Kolea Says:

    I apologize for the poor quality of my posted comment. Large sentence fragments were lost in the posting. I was typing much faster than my computer could keep up. It is very sluggish because I have so many applications and windows open at the same time. Both my computer and I are lousy at multi-tasking.

  20. Peter Kay Says:

    My asteroid probability was the response to the “what if” of all 6 nukes going full meltdown. And I stand by that comment.

    This discussion actually underscores the situation. There is a complex terminology and is being thrown around by many and that is dangerous.

    And I don’t disagree w/ you that burden of proof lies with the advocates, but I’ll also counter that one must look at these issues *relatively* to the alternatives. And if one does so, the only conclusion that clear-thinking people will come to is that the Left’s fear and anti-nuclear stance has been and will continue to be irrational.

  21. Michael Says:

    http://scienceray.com/technology/the-workers-in-fukushima-daini-nuclear-plant-deserve-our-deep-respect/

    Five people have already died. Unlike HECO, they died with their boots on and not from Walking.

  22. Peter Kay Says:

    The dedication those workers have is unimaginable. It’s a real credit to Japanese values of honor and duty. God bless them all.

  23. David Shapiro Says:

    Peter, my friend, if you’re going to talk about inappropriate terminology being thrown around, add your Jane Fonda/left-bashing to the list. It reminds me of my time in Washington in another life covering the NRC, which should tell you that your ad hominem attacks are outdated as well as of little intellectual worth. How about we ditch the name-calling and keep on a little higher plane.

    We’re not talking about religion, ideology or politics. Were talking about whether this is the best possible way to generate electricity. To me, it would seem difficult for anybody looking at the TV in recent days to conclude that it is.

    Nobody is suggesting that we should immediately turn off all nuclear plants, any more than we should have shut down all offshore oil wells after the gulf disaster. But in both cases, it’s reasonable to look at the significant downside playing out before us and ask more urgently whether these are our best energy solutions for the long term or if we should be more aggressively pursuing other options. In Hawaii, the last two administrations of different ideological stripes have concluded that it’s possible to have an energy future here that involves little burning or irradiating of anything. It doesn’t take Jane Fonda to see the good sense of moving as far in that direction as we can.

  24. Peter Kay Says:

    Thanks Dave for providing the moderating voice. I should know better than one-up Left/Right baiting and I apologize.

    I have no disagreement with what you just stated. My original post was to tamp down the extreme “possibilities” that are being put out there and freaking people out unnecessarily.

  25. David Shapiro Says:

    Peter, I do appreciate the concern about not freaking people out and that wasn’t my intent.

    In the 1980s, I was part of a reporting team that investigated alleged irregularities in the construction of a midwestern nuclear plant. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the utility executives I dealt with reminded me of the guy in The Simpsons. That left an impression on me. On the other hand, the system worked in that case. The plant had its construction license pulled and ended up being converted to coal.

    I’m not inherently anti-nuclear. I’ve just seen it as more of a bridge than a final solution and now I see the bridge on fire.

  26. Michael Says:

    In catalogs or online, one can order solar powered security lights that have remote control or motion activated. Cheap source of lighting when there is no electricity. I have installed several in my home. Hallways, living room and kitchen and bathroom. Small solar panels put on roof are light and won’t damage roofing. Each solar light has a rechargeable battery pack. If lights do not work, open unit up with a screw driver and go to Radio Shack or any electronic store and buy the battery equivalent to what is in unit. Put unit back together and put unit in use. Cost about 80 dollars for a good lighting unit but saves alot.

    http://www.greenhome.com/products/lighting/solar_power/

    url is just one of many companies who sell such products. Why spend thousands for just a few areas that need lighting at night?

  27. zzzzzz Says:

    Dave, this sort of discussion should go beyond the generating of electricity, and look at how to meet our energy needs and wants.

    Part of our energy needs could be met by technologies that do not require electricity. Solar water heating and seawater cooling are two such technologies. Solar powered air conditioning is, IMO, another technology that could make a large dent locally.

    Increasing efficiency is another part of this discussion.


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