Fukushima – a year on

It’s almost a year since the Japanese earthquake that produced a tsunami and consequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant on March 11th 2011.

Here’s a video, produced by Nature magazine, showing the continuing efforts to clean up.

I’ve been teaching Nuclear Physics this term and while I was talking about chain reactions, neutron capture, control rods and the like, the other day I suddenly realised that the class of twenty-somethings in front of me had all been born after Chernobyl and were probably unaware of just how scary it was at the time. The current generation of students, and those following it, will be among those who are going to have to grapple with a very serious problem as oil and gas supplies dwindle over the next decades. People can make their own mind up about what’s the best way to tackle this crisis, but my view is that at least in the short term we’re stuck with nuclear fission reactors for at least some of our energy needs – with improved energy efficiency and appropriate use of renewable sources helping – until fusion power comes to the rescue.

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14 Responses to “Fukushima – a year on”

  1. Ian Douglas Says:

    Do you think fusion’s likely to be a viable power source? I know it’s the great hope and the sun seems to manage all right, but as a practical solution in time to stop geopolitics pushing the price of oil up too high?

  2. telescoper Says:

    When I was an undergraduate I went on a trip to Culham to see the Joint European Torus. We were told then that fusion would be a viable energy source within a decade. That was in 1985. I gather people are saying the same thing now….

    I don’t know enough about the engineering aspects of magnetic confinement to know how close we are to a solution. I wish I knew more, actually. I also hope that at least some physics graduates go and work in this area. We need the best young brains working on that challenge.

    P.S. We already get most of our energy – indirectly -from a fusion reactor called the Sun.

    • I’ve been working with the Culham people since the 1980’s, and back then they said that fusion was still a long way off – mid-21st century. So don’t know where the decade statement came from – a very optimistic (or excitable) scientist?

      Since then there have been major developments at the Joint European Torus at Culham and elsewhere, and of course there is ITER to look forward to.

      There is also ongoing work on inertial confinement fusion. So I think we’ll get there in the end – but its a long-term project.

      • telescoper Says:

        I was told a similar thing about gravitational wave detection around that time too!

      • Peter and I are of a similar vintage. As a vacation student at RAL in the 1980s, I was talking to students working at Culham, and they told me fusion power was a decade off.

  3. I think if Germany can go without its fission reactors probably most any country can. In less than 10 years people went to the Moon, with essentially no computers used. A strong commitment is what is needed; technologically the problem—with a mixture of renewable energy sources—is not that large.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      I think the question of whether Germany can go without fission reactors is still very much in the air.

      Despite lots of of wind and solar it does seem like the shortfall will be made up with building new coal fired power plants.

      I think it is really interesting to watch different countries (France, Germany, UK, Japan) facing exactly the same questions choosing different paths. I guess we just need to check back in 20 odd years and see how they got on.

      I personally agree with the UK path. If we don’t, at the very least, replace existing nuclear with new nuclear when they close, then it is making the job very difficult indeed.

    • To at least some extent, Germany plans to getby without fission reactors by importing power fom French and other fission reactors, in addition to going backwards and building more coal fired stations, with all the long term problems they will bring.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m sceptical about nuclear fusion as a major source of power, partly because of the long-standing plasma confinement problems. However, another major concern is that cheap fusion power, if ever realised, is likely to be a complex process that only some countries will be able to organise.

    Power sources would ideally be simple, commonplace and cheap. One possible way this might be realised is through reductions in the cost of solar photovoltaic panels brought about by technological and manufacturing advances. Once the price of such panels – whether they are based on silicon, carbon or other technologies – is low enough that all roofs of buildings can be covered with them, the nature of power generation will be completely changed. There would remain different challenges to ensure a continuity of supply overnight and during the winter.

  5. I too remember the fear of Chenobyl, and have relatives who are farmers who were impacted by the restrictions on meat sales etc.

    But when I remember the events of a year ago, the thing that makes me sad is not Fukushima, in which a handful of people died, but the almost 20,000 that were killed by the tsunami, and faded into the background of the events at the nuclear power plant.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I very much agree with you. The tsunami was the real tragedy.

      Meanwhile, it is vital to educate the public that nuclear fusion is not nuclear fission, that there is no reason to suppose Cadarache will not do the trick, that a sixty foot tidal wave is unlikely in southern Germany, that windmills are costly and useless landscape wreckers, that there is plenty of gas available by fracking, and that the IPCC is systematically lying about how certain is the effect of water vapour in amplifying CO2-induced warming.

      • While the consensus concerning AGW among those who actually work in the field is probably greater than the quite good consensus in cosmology regarding the values of the cosmological parameters, there are a few detractors, though there is a correlation between being a detractor and receiving funding from various sources with an axe to grind. Whatever the balance of opinion, it is a strong statement within science to say that one’s opponent is systematically lying. Considering the implications, why not take those lying to court? Yes, right, this happened in the US, where several right-wing politicians launched investigations into scientists who believed that the facts support human-caused global warming due primarily to increased levels of carbon dioxide. In no case did the courts find that any lying was going on.

        For details including references put together by someone who actually works in the field now (as opposed to myself, who worked in the field only briefly almost 20 years ago), check out http://tamino.wordpress.com/ (extra points if you spot the connection to an occasional commenter In The Dark).

  6. I think that a key point here is the *short term* solution that nuclear fission is providing us.
    We are using a very short term solution without taking much into account the related *very* long term problems.
    Just for instance, the madness called nuclear waste:

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/environment/story/2012-01-25/hanford-nuclear-plutonium-cleanup/52622796/1

    Can we really say that we have these problems under control for 10^n years, WHATEVER happens?

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Although, it is a bit unfair not to note that a large amount of the nuclear waste we have to deal with is from the production of nuclear weapons not from nuclear energy. Certainly, the whole reason the Hanford site existed originally was to produce plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb. .

      It still amazes me, but to produce enough electricity for a person’s lifetime (about 1/2 million kwh’s) just requires a fuel rod of about 2kg about the length of your arm. That is the high level nuclear waste for a lifetime!

      To produce the same amount of electricity requires about 200 tonnes of coal, the burning of which produces about 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide “waste”.

      2kg v 500 tonnes – nuclear is not the one with a waste problem in my opinion.

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