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MIT Head of Nuclear Science & Engineering Comments On Fukushima & Nuclear Energy

Professor Richard Lester, Head of the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, offers his thoughts on the Fukushima crisis and the price of nuclear energy.

| April 29, 2011 | Top News

AsianScientist (Apr. 29, 2011) - Recent events in Japan have shaken public confidence in the safety of nuclear power plants.

This morning, Tokyo University professor Toshiso Kosako submitted his resignation as a senior nuclear adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. Kosako said the government had only taken "stopgap" and "ad hoc measures" to contain the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Although the health consequences have so far been small, the Fukushima accident has rekindled fears of radiation around the globe and has renewed the discussion on the risks and costs of nuclear power. This puts into question the future of an industry that had been seen as one of the keys to avoiding the long-term threat of global climate change as well as nearer-term conflicts over scarce fossil-fuel resources.

We attended a talk this Wednesday by Professor Richard Lester, the Japan Steel Industry Professor and head of the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, who offered his thoughts and took questions from the worldwide MIT alumni community.

The full video of Prof. Lester's talk can be found here. Here are excerpts from his talk:

What are the likely public health consequences of Fukushima?

"The radiation-induced fatality associated with Fukushima may turn out to be zero, in comparison with the death toll of 20,000 directly caused by the earthquake and tsunami. For comparable amounts of power, fatalities from other forms of energy such as coal plants are orders of magnitude greater."

Post-mortem from Japan: What can the United States learn from the accident?

"The post-mortem is really just beginning in Japan," he said. "We hope that the enquiries which will occur will be transparent, fully resourced and available to the rest of the world".

"The United States must assess the consequences from this incident with respect to nuclear plants in the US. Clearly we have to look at the seismic risks involved, emergency evacuation zones and containment issues."

"US-based operators should consider spent nuclear fuel stored at water-filled pools in US nuclear reactors, which are in larger amounts than were present in the Fukushima nuclear power reactor," said Dr. Lester.

Are there any international standards for nuclear buildings?

"No. There are no international standards with teeth. We do not have a global regulatory regime for the design, construction and operation of nuclear power plants. China has a boom in nuclear construction. Chinese nuclear reactors - of which we expect 60 to be built potentially between now and the end of the decade - will be built to similar standards as the ones in the West, but the Chinese will likely also do things their own way."

How does this accident compare with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island?

"Very simply, it is a lot worse than Three Mile Island, and a lot less bad than Chernobyl. The accident at Three Mile Island did not result in any significant off-site release in radiation. Chernobyl led to 5-10 times the amount of radiation released compared to Fukushima, and the existence of that radiation was not disclosed to the people living around the area, which lead to much larger doses than had the authorities alerted the population to what is going on. This was not the case in Japan. The Japanese authorities did alert the public to what is going on."

What can MIT alumni and students do to increase support for nuclear energy?

“MIT alumni and students can communicate clearly and precisely about what's actually happening with respect to the accident. MIT students can help non-specialists in the field," said Dr. Lester, "through communication of the facts and contribution to the public debate about the future of nuclear power."

Please comment on safer nuclear plant designs, such as pebble bed reactors and smaller nuclear plants.

“Each has a different set of advantage and disadvantages with respect to safety and economics,” said Dr. Lester. “With smaller plants, the risk and financial burdens are much reduced relative to the 1000 and 1200 MW reactors, giving good safety benefits. With pebble bed reactors, the walk-away safe design feature is of great value to operators and the general public.”

Is co-siting multiple reactors at a single location ever justified?

“With Fukushima, the interactions between several reactors was not anticipated. For multi-unit siting, the question is what is the minimum distance between neighboring reactors. Arguments for (multi-siting) are strong, because of a number of benefits associated with it. But the possibility of interaction between units and potential accidents should be carefully considered."

Is nuclear energy in the US competitive with other forms of energy, especially cheap shale gas?

"There are currently about a hundred or so operating reactors. The operating costs of existing power reactors are very low compared to low-cost gas. They are therefore economically competitive with other sources of energy, such as gas, coal and hydro energy. But for new plants, the capital costs are very high, so we have to look at both the capital costs and the operating costs."

"However, if at some point in the future, we have a relatively modest form of carbon price, combined with greenhouse gases and climate change, the economic competitiveness of nuclear energy will be very high."

What is Congress doing on off-site spent-fuel storage?

“Congress has been doing nothing for the past 30 years. The case for storing spent fuel at a dry storage site - maybe one, maybe two - is very strong. 60 percent of spent-fuel is still sitting in water-filled pools adjacent to the reactors. The outcome rests entirely on Congress,” said Dr. Lester.

"The best option is to have a single, central, remote storage facility, to remove the spent nuclear fuel which is then put in dry storage casks."

What are the health consequences of nuclear contamination?

“There are some hotspots outside 20 kilometer exclusion zone, with North-west of the plant receiving the highest doses due to the direction of the wind and rain. Estimates of the cumulative dose at that location between March 11 and April 4 was 7.6 mSv, which is about the equivalent of a computer tomography (CT) chest scan, or 3 years of regular background radiation."

“As for the workforce - for this group which is maximally exposed to cancer - their exposure increases their lifetime risk of cancer from 22 to 22.8 percent, or overall less than 25 percent."

How long will it take before the exclusion zone is safe to live in again?

“We don’t know. Large parts of the exclusion zone did not see significant increases in radiation. But large parts are also significantly above background. The authorities will decide the timing for returning to this zone, which is a trade-off between a possible increase in dose, and keeping people away from home which may cause disruption and emotional pain. This is a tough decision for the Japanese government to make."

Should we try to achieve a nuclear-free US?

“Without nuclear energy, we cannot reduce the carbon emission reduction goals over the next few decades. We will fail to reach those goals,” Dr. Lester concluded.

Related Articles:

Remote-Controlled Robots Investigate Fukushima Nuclear Plant.
Japan May Be “Sinking” Due To Earthquake Damage.
Japan’s Nuclear Crisis: Are There Serious Health Implications?
APEC Secretariat Offers Condolences And Solidarity To Japan.


Source: MIT Alumni Association.

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