Experts discuss Japan's nuclear future

March 21, 2011 8:11:42 PM PDT
The World Bank estimates that damage from Japan's earthquake and tsunami could go well over $200 billion. But it could be worse; whether that figure rises all depends on what happens at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Workers attached a mile-long electrical line over the weekend, only to learn there was not enough power to operate the cooling system in nuclear reactor No. 2 and damage to the system in reaction No. 1 was too great to switch on.

Alan Hanson PhD, a nuclear engineer whose expertise is in securing and handling used fuel rods, said the process must be done gingerly.

"Just like throwing sand into a spent fuel pool, you might make the problem worse instead of better and they certainly don't want to trigger more explosions or fires when they re-attach electricity," Hanson said.

Hanson is a visiting scholar at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. He participated in a faculty symposium on the Japan crisis.

The crisis for now focuses on the overheating reactors and spent fuel rods that need to be stored in pools of borated water. After that is addressed, three of the six reactors at Fukushima will need to be de-commissioned.

"Once you introduce sea water into the plant, you start stainless steel corrosion," Hanson said. "You can't predict the behavior of the materials. That's the end of those three plants."

Another issue facing Japan will be the cost of rebuilding. The World Bank says the price could top $230 billion.

"It represents about 4 percent of Japan's GDP; Japan has the third largest GDP in the world of about $5.4 trillion, so a $235 billion hit, although very large, is absorbable," Stanford political scientist Daniel Okimoto said.

The lessons learned from Fukushima are just are just starting to emerge. One that stands near the top is the fact that, while nuclear reactors are built to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis were never a consideration and in the U.S., Japan and China, many nuclear reactors are built right along the ocean's edge.


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