March 28, 2011

This Weekend's News: On Nuclear Energy

I’ll start this wrap-up with the coolest natural security-related news from the weekend: the Navy has sent some submarines to the Arctic on exercises to do who knows exactly what, but surely in part to signal the U.S. presence in the region. Forbes reported, however, that “Ironically, finding a thick enough ice sheet to support the temporary camp was among the difficulties the Navy encountered this year.”

Beyond the ongoing operations in Libya and demonstrations around the North Africa/Middle East region, Japan once again remained a heavy presence in the news. At this writing, another earthquake hit last night, radioactivity levels are rising again and radioactive water appears to be leaking into the sea. Back in the United States all news outlets continued to cover nuclear energy concerns broadly.

In The New York Times, Matthew Wald reported Sunday on the Tennessee Valley Authority bringing in a group of reporters to do stories on the safety measures in place in an Alabama nuclear reactor of the same design as that still in crisis at Fukushima Daiichi:

“…the three reactors at Browns Ferry have preparations in place that operators say would help in a nightmare situation like Japan’s, a loss of electricity for running its pumps, valves and safety systems. While a tsunami is not an issue in northern Alabama, more than 300 miles from the sea, the loss of all power is always a threat. The plant sits on the banks of the Tennessee River, where floods can reasonably be anticipated, although plant officials say that water levels have never risen high enough to threaten the reactors.

Still, Browns Ferry is ready for “a one-in-a-million-year flood, or however many zeroes you want to go out,” said Preston D. Swafford, the T.V.A.’s chief nuclear officer, who led a group of reporters on a three-hour tour through the plant.”

The same refrain – that regular and post-9/11 upgrades to American plants have made them more ready for disaster – appeared in a report from Scientific American on Friday as well. It added a bit more nuance though by quoting a few prominent physicists (one a former undersecretary at DOE) that additional upgrades in water injection and passive cooling systems could help even more.

Two Fridays ago, a few colleagues and I issued a policy brief on our initial reactions to the nuclear crisis in Japan. I suggested that countries may change their nuclear energy plans in terms of chosen reactor designs, decisions to reprocess/enrich nuclear fuel and from which countries they import nuclear technology. While I hold to my belief that we'll see major changes in planned nuclear energy advances as a result of the disaster in Japan on the international side, Forbes focused on the U.S. alone with an overview declaring: “Don’t Worry About Nuclear Power, All 2012 Candidates Will Support It.” Though his list of candidates is short-ish (and omits Pawlenty, in particular), it is a good reminder that we’re all just making educated guesses on the full repercussions (or lack thereof) of ongoing events in Japan. Perhaps things won’t change that much after all.

The Week Ahead

At noon today the Policy Progressive Institute is hosting a policy briefing entitled, “The Future of Nuclear Power After Fukushima.” Over the next two days, the 29-30th, CNA and Johns Hopkins University are holding "Adapting to Climate and Energy Challenges - Options for US Maritime Forces," at the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory. Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. go to SAIS for an event on "Clearing the Air: Managing Air Quality to Benefit Health and Climate in India." At 1:30 p.m., the Wilson Center will be discussing “Europe’s Energy Security in the Balance: What Future for the Southern Energy Corridor?” Then, at 6:00 p.m. SAIS will be holding a discussion on “The Geopolitics of the Caspian Basin.” On Thursday, at 9:00 a.m. the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation will be holding an event entitled “Operation Energy Innovation: A Stronger, Smarter Fighting Force” at the Rayburn House Office Building.