When the unexpected happens, even at a nuclear power plant, don't freak out. All you have to do is cool the cores. Just add water. If you can't deliver it through a pump, you can spray it from a truck or dump it from a helicopter. If pressure builds up, you can vent it. Yes, that might entail releasing some radiation. But releasing radiation isn't the end of the world. It's better to go nuclear in small doses than in a catastrophic blast.
While the workers at Fukushima wage this fight, the rest of us should rethink power plant construction with the same innovative urgency. American plants built with a container design similar to Fukushima's have already been upgraded to relieve pressure in the event of overheating. The Japan crisis suggests other fixes as well. Put diesel generators on higher ground. Require longer-lasting batteries to power the cooling system when the electrical grid goes out. And for crying out loud, build some robots.
Nothing is more exasperating than reading reports about all the things that can't be done at Fukushima—fixing valves, pumping water, ascertaining damage, dousing spent-fuel pools—because of heat, radiation, or the risk of explosion. Last year, BP plugged an oil leak a mile under the Gulf of Mexico with the aid of remotely operated vehicles. Why doesn't Japan, the world's most robotically advanced country, have unmanned vehicles on hand to do simple but dangerous jobs at a radiation-contaminated nuclear power plant? Ten minutes ago, I got a newsletter from the unmanned-vehicles industry about all the cool things robots are doing to help Japan. It has not a word about the nuclear reactors. That's disgraceful.
To head off the next nuclear accident, we need to rethink the parameters of plant design. Why do we build backup cooling pumps for reactors but not for spent-fuel pools? And we need layers of protection that are truly independent. If some safety mechanisms require electricity, others should be functional without it. Store cooling water above the reactor so you can deliver it with plain old gravity if you lose power. And diversify the layers. At Fukushima, all the gizmos failed, but the containers have largely held firm. Build in different kinds of protection—barriers, gizmos, training, manual tools—so that if one kind fails, another can intercede.
If everything goes wrong, and your reactor melts down, don't give up. You still have evacuation and iodine. And even if Fukushima becomes another Chernobyl, nuclear energy still has a much better safety record than fossil fuels, just as stocks have a better track record than bonds over the long term, despite the occasional crash. But that safety record depends on us. We have to learn from Fukushima, just as we learned from Chernobyl. We have to diversify our means of managing disasters and averting meltdowns. We have to give ourselves a fighting chance when things go wrong, as they sometimes will. Fukushima's workers haven't surrendered. We shouldn't either.
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