The Atomic Age After Fukushima—Time for an Epilogue?

News Abroad

Frank Uekoetter is a Dilthey Fellow of the VolkswagenStiftung and Deputy Director of the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. His books include The Green and the Brown. A History of Conservation in Nazi Germany (2006) and The Age of Smoke. Environmental Policy in Germany and the United States, 1880-1970 (2009).

It is a common sport today to label recent events as historic turning points.  Rarely did we see this impulse as speedily at work as during the last weekend.  In the afternoon of Saturday, March 12, one day after a devastating earthquake, Reactor #1 of the nuclear complex in Fukushima, Japan, blew up into the blue sky of northeastern Honshu.  The following Monday, the influential German weekly Der Spiegel ran an obituary for nuclear power.  The front page showed a picture of the explosion, together with a title that proclaimed “The end of the atomic age.”

The moment does not seem like one that calls for the expertise of the historian.  At the time of this writing, it is not clear whether there is actually a meltdown, and certainly nobody knows what the next days and weeks will bring.  This seems to be the time for experts who know about the absorptive power of boron and how an emergency cooling system works.  And yet there is one question that the historian can probably answer better than anyone else:  why do we have reactors that need an emergency cooling system?

Emergency cooling systems are not an indispensable part of nuclear technology.  They are a peculiarity of reactors that use water as a coolant, and specifically the type of reactor that has become standard all over the world.  There are multiple ways to generate electricity from nuclear fission, and several types of neutron moderators.  Light water is only one option, and so is the reactor that goes with it.  In terms of inherent safety, it is certainly not the best.

So why did the operators of power plants choose this type of technology?  Part of the answer is that it already existed when the choices were made in the 1950s and 1960s. The U.S.S. Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, was running with a water-moderated reactor since 1955.  The choice had a lot to do with the peculiar conditions of a submarine that put a premium on saving space.  And anyway, machines for war do not have a reputation for putting safety first.

Light water had a second advantage:  engineers knew how to handle it.  It is easy to forget that power plant operators were initially skeptical of it as a new type of fuel.  In the years after World War II, coal and oil were available in seemingly infinite quantities, and nuclear technology challenged the traditional cohorts of experts.  Engineers, however, knew the concept of producing steam and running a turbine with it, and that gave the light water reactor an edge that it never lost.

Of course, the story was a bit more complex than I can lay out here.  The point is that there was never a fair and open competition between different concepts of nuclear power.  In theory, it would have been a good idea to try different concepts in sync, and define criteria for the latter choice.  In practice, the winner was the model that gathered momentum first.  That was the light water reactor.

After the Chernobyl disasters, nuclear experts were quick to point out that this was an uncommon reactor type that unfortunately used graphite as a neutron moderator, which ignited during the incident.  No such excuse can be made for the Fukushima plant, which is uncomfortably similar to most reactors worldwide.  Simply put, the end of light water technology will mean the end of nuclear power generation.

But will this be the end?  The history of nuclear power tells us about the huge momentum of the nuclear complex. Nuclear engineers, reactors, and research stations do not disappear when disaster strikes.  Quite the contrary, they try to reassert themselves, and for good reason:  their future depends on it.  The momentum of light water technology is enormous, and experts will pull no punches to defend their turf.  Chances are that, just a few weeks from now, an expert will come forward to explain that the entire thing could have played out well, if only preparations had been more thorough and the operators had taken the right decisions.  It certainly could not happen in their own country.  It is unlikely that they will talk about different types of reactors.

This could be the end of the atomic age, and certainly should, but I doubt it.  The empire will strike back.

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Peter Kovachev - 3/16/2011

"This could be the end of the atomic age, and certainly should, but I doubt it. The empire will strike back." (Frank Uekoetter)

This might mean a temporary hiatus of the atomic age for a few countries with powerful liberal, anti-nuke lobbies, but only for a while, until the hysteria subsides, and only where nuclear power provides a small share of energy generation. I can't see France throwing in the towel, nor Russia or China, and certainly not Iran. The false alternative sources, solar and wind, won't help of course, oil is too expensive, and everyone hates coal even more than nuclear. The recent shale gas discoveries are promising, provided the eco-nuts don't regulate that sector into oblivion, and thorium reactors won't become viable for three decades at least.

So, unless we we can stomach a slide into massive pre-industrial poverty, with civil collapse and mountains of corpses not seen since the great plagues, we'll be back to nuclear. But, thanks to impractical polyannish advice and exagerated fears, we'll have missed out on opportunities for improving reactor efficiency and safety. Such is life.