October 28, 2010

Earthquakes Not Necessarily a Deal Breaker for Nuclear

Nuclear critics are likely to take the most recent earthquake in Indonesia as a new opportunity to protest the construction of a nuclear power plant on Java.

Indonesia has a growing population (currently 230 million people) and growing energy demands (estimated 10% annual growth). Indonesia’s economy is growing at a pace that exceeds its ability to provide electricity. Beginning in the ‘70s, nuclear power is mentioned every few years as a partial solution to Indonesia’s energy needs.

The idea has gained more traction as the world confronts climate change climate-friendly technologies. Indonesia has pledged to reduce its emissions by 26% over the next decade. In an interview earlier this year, the head of Indonesia’s Nuclear Atomic Energy Agency (BENAT) predicted that despite maximizing other energy sources, such as geothermal, the need for nuclear power is almost inevitable if Indonesia is going to meet its goals.

Predictions like this are a call to battle stations for nuclear opponents: “No new nukes!” Protesters claim that the country’s geography and geology – causing earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like -- would lead to nuclear disaster, despite a 2002 study conducted under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency which concluded that a commercial nuclear power plant was technically feasible.

I’m not arguing that nuclear power is the best solution for Indonesia’s energy needs, but the seismic activity in the area does not make nuclear power impossible. Nuclear engineers have confronted the issue of shock waves before; I have three examples:

#1 Indonesian research reactors: Perhaps the most obvious example, but frequently overlooked. A commercial nuclear power plant will not be the first nuclear reactor to operate in fault-line riddled Indonesia. The country has been operating research reactors successfully (much, much smaller than commercial power reactors but similar technology) since the ‘60s.

#2 Japan: Japan, another country sitting on the ring of fire, has safely used nuclear power for decades. Lacking the fossil fuel resources of other developed countries, Japan invested early in nuclear power. It now boasts 54 reactors that produce 25% of the country’s electricity. Five were built in the last decade, and eight more are planned for the next decade. All of this despite the fact that Japan experiences earthquakes regularly.

#3 Nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers: The Japanese are not the only ones who must account for sizable shock waves in their reactor designs. The US Navy (ok, its contractors) has been designing reactors for warships since the 1950s. The design requirements for these reactors ensure they can withstand the demands of battle – demands that aren’t so different from an earthquake. Admittedly, extra requirements don’t come cheap. Indonesia may not be able to afford the hefty price tag of robust reactors, but that’s different from saying they couldn’t be “safe.”

After considering all the pros and cons of nuclear power, Indonesia may opt to get its electricity from another source – but let’s not assume seismic activity is a deal breaker for nuclear power.