Is Nuclear Power Really Safe Anywhere?

The debate about the future of nuclear power has fired up again. Just a few months after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, many countries are taking very different stances on what they think of nuclear. Japan has reaffirmed its nuclear commitment, the U.S. appears to be in support on a national level even as projects falter, while Germany and Switzerland appear to have given up on nuclear altogether.

All of this debate got started by one freak natural disaster that is a once-in-a-lifetime event, right?

The destruction in Joplin, Mo., should make us question whether there is anywhere a nuclear plant would be safe from a natural disaster. At the rate things are going, the locations that can be described as "disaster free" are becoming few and far between. For General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , Toshiba, and Siemens (NYSE: SI  ) to keep building plants, they need to find locations that are safe for nuclear.

Huffing, puffing, and blowing the plant down
If we just look at the U.S., safe locations are tough to find. The South and Great Plains should be quick to eliminate from consideration: Hurricane Katrina, Tornado Alley. 'Nuff said. The West Coast can also be eliminated because of regular earthquakes. Areas of the East Coast aren't exactly known for disastrous weather, but it doesn't take long to look up stories of hurricanes destroying areas as far north as New York as recently as 2009.

Living in Minnesota, I would like to think that we're relatively isolated from major natural disasters barring a regular flood here and there. But when a tornado ran through north Minneapolis on Sunday, I got to thinking that maybe this shouldn't be a hot spot for nuclear power.

The upper Midwest is probably the best place for a nuclear plant, but it's also not incredibly populated and we have plenty of safe wind power going up around here. People may not want a wind turbine in their backyard, but a nuclear plant certainly isn't more acceptable.

Is anywhere really safe?
Nuclear advocates will argue that past nuclear disasters are freak events that aren't likely to happen again. But like financial crises (that shouldn't happen based on risk management), they happen regularly.

If new plants aren't built and old plants are decommissioned (as some countries are planning), business for suppliers such as Cameco (NYSE: CCJ  ) , Uranium Energy (NYSE: UEC  ) , and Uranerz Energy (NYSE: URZ  ) will slowly go down the tubes.

If it weren't for natural disasters and those pesky nuclear meltdowns, I would say the future of nuclear was brighter. But unless you know a place where natural disasters never hit, I think the lights are slowly going out.

Fool contributor Travis Hoium does not have a position in any company mentioned. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw.

Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (15) | Recommend This Article (5)

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  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2011, at 12:07 PM, pvsheridan wrote:

    The post rules say "Be respectful" but this article really strains my innate desire to be so.

    "People may not want a wind turbine in their backyard, but a nuclear plant certainly isn't more acceptable."

    Says who?! Just shooting from the hip, premised on an anti-nuclear bias that is dripping in-buckets from this Travis Hoium.

    But here he exposes himself as the charlatan he is:

    "But like financial crises (that shouldn't happen based on risk management), they happen regularly"

    As ANYONE with an ounce of brains/responsibility knows, there is NO CONNECTION between "financial crisis" and risk management; most especially in the ruses perpetrated in 2006/2008. Again, here Hoium exposes himself for the charlatan he is.

    "we have plenty of safe wind power"

    Wow! Do we really need to comment on such a mindless outburst?

    If you take Hoium's "logic" to its ultimate destination, physical reality will be banned, and humans with it. Life poses risks, modern life poses modern risks; none of which are unknown or unmanageable. But regarding the latter, Hoium and his agenda-craved ilk would have us believe that such are unsurmountable. These are and will be well-within our control. Ever hear of the USS Michigan?

    There was PLENTY of forewarning about the dangers of a tsunami at Fukishima, including the belated 2006 release from the NRC (funny how Hoium and his agende-driven ilk don't mention such), but humans did not heed those warnings. THAT is the issue. Not some Malthusian psychosis about modern human life on this planet, or Hoium's agenda.

    If a tsunami took out the refineries in Houston, the Hoium-types would write that oil is not safe. Pay no attention to these cowardly Luddites.

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2011, at 12:08 PM, intimeagen wrote:

    It's hard to take this argument seriously. We've had nuclear plants in this country for decades with one partial meltdown that had a little to do with mechanical failure and a lot to do with human error. We've never had a nuclear problem related to natural disasters despite dozens of hurricanes and hundreds of tornadoes. Of course, earthquakes on the West Coast are a concern and should be factored into any future plans. But to claim that the lights are going out on the nuclear industry is ridiculous and an argument hardly up to the merit of this site. With oil at or near record prices and an attitude among oil companies that is environmentally catastrophic, we need more -- not fewer -- real alternatives, and nuclear is currently the most viable. It took an earthquake AND a tsunami to cause the disaster in Japan. Look what happened in the Gulf of Mexico from simple disregard by oil companies and their contractors.

    Germany has pulled out of the nuclear-power scene -- oh, and Switzerland too, a world energy leader. The Germans had a minimal commitment compared to other major companies. And, for better or worse, the Germans take environmental issues much more seriously than most other countries. In my opinion, this is a good thing but hardly representative of the rest of the world's response (and one that is sometimes reactionary). Despite their hard stance today, we'll see how many years they stand by it if progress slows for other alternative power options.

    China and India -- and not Germany -- are going to drive the industry for the next decade. Any long-term investors who sells their nuclear power stock now will be disappointed. That's not to say you can't trad well on current instability. But again, this industry is hardly on a permanent decline.

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2011, at 12:08 PM, FreshhLook wrote:

    Mr. Hoium makes some good points on the dangers of Nuclear energy, but when you take into account the advantages of Nuclear there is no doubt that Nuclear technology has to be a small if not major part of the worlds energy model in the future.

    Germany is mentioned as one of the countries that have given up on Nuclear all together and this is correct, they are shutting down their reactors by 2022, however you don't mention that they currently import energy from France that is Nuclear generated energy. So, they may be getting rid of their own plants, but they are still benefiting from the technology by importing from others.

    Looking at France as an example, they have they lowest electricity costs in all of Europe after have some of the highest costs in the 1970's during the Oil Crisis of 1973. This is all due in large part to their dedication to Nuclear Power.

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2011, at 12:32 PM, chemnuke wrote:

    There are two basic areas associated with the safety of nuclear power. First is to provide safety protection against the effects of natural disasters to the extent practical. This means providing robust structures and safety systems to allow the facility to withstand an F-5 tornado or a magnitude 8 earthquake. However, there are those disasters that are unlikely for which robust designs are impractical. For these, the second area is to provide safety systems that mitigate the impact of the disaster. In the new designs for nuclear plants, this means providing passive shutdown and cooling systems that will safely contain the radiation and heat without requiring electrical power or human control. The future of nuclear depends on the proper allocation of resources to protect against the effects of disasters and mitigation where it is not economical to remove all risk. The US nuclear industry has been operating safely since its inception, but more importantly is constantly learning and applying lessons to improve physical safety and human reliability. Nuclear will continue to play an important role in the US energy mix.

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2011, at 2:42 PM, TMFFlushDraw wrote:

    @ pvsheridan

    "As ANYONE with an ounce of brains/responsibility knows, there is NO CONNECTION between "financial crisis" and risk management"

    Have you studied or worked in the finance field? I have and based on experience one of the reasons we had the financial crisis is people didn't understand that their risk models didn't account for REAL risks otherwise they wouldn't have taken them. Feel free to reference the following articles for more info on the topic from a quick Google search.

    http://www.soa.org/library/essays/rm-essay-2008.pdf

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/magazine/04risk-t.html

    With respect to my comment that we have "plenty of safe wind power" if you read the entire sentence I didn't say for the entire country. It was a localized comment for the upper-midwest where I live. Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska. There's plenty of wind and not a lot of people. ie. wind is a very feasible power source.

    @chemnuke

    Operating safely since inception? Are we going to dismiss Three Mile Island.

    My point was that people don't understand the real risks of nuclear power until it's too late. I haven't read any comments to make me think otherwise... yet.

    Travis Hoium

    PS. Oil is not safe. At least I wouldn't drink it or eat fish from the Gulf that were swimming in it.

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2011, at 2:45 PM, catoismymotor wrote:

    Bikini Atoll

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2011, at 3:49 PM, pvsheridan wrote:

    Hoium:

    At least you are willing to (continually) expose who and what you are; which I applaud.

    Now, regarding my experience in finance; don't make us laugh. Next your inbreeding will claim that 1913, as just one example, had nothing to do with the (merely) recent "financial crisis." Save your adolescent self-effacing diversions for someone born-yesterday.

    http://links.veronicachapman.com/MoneychangersversusUSConsti...

    On the other hand, thank you for confirming FOR ALL TO SEE that you and your ilk are part of the problem.

    As far as your post script:

    "PS. Oil is not safe. At least I wouldn't drink it or eat fish from the Gulf that were swimming in it,"

    you really have A LOT of growing up to do. Mindless polemical dribble. But more specifically, you should do the growing-up before "it's too late."

    P.S. You know NOTHING about nuclear power.

  • Report this Comment On May 31, 2011, at 8:19 PM, rfaramir wrote:

    "Are we going to dismiss Three Mile Island." In a word: yes.

    Relative to deaths that occur and are accounted for in insurance and liabilities and costs in the rest of the energy business, it was truly insignificant. Politically, it was huge, of course.

    Fukushima was a bizarre co-occurence of two simultaneous natural disasters and many government failures. The plant was old enough to have been shuttered long ago, political pressures prevented it. Political protection from accountability enhanced the danger (it was not run by a private company, liable in court for damages caused). If we knew more about it, I'm sure we'd find more political influences that were negative: I'd investigate who chose such a vulnerable location (likely a government engineer), did the neighbors agree to the plant's building or were they politically disenfranchised from voicing opposition, did the state fund it or at least guarantee loans for its building, did independent regulators oversee it or were they government employees. And so on.

    If forceful intervention in the market (i.e., politics) is stopped, the free market will be able to meet Mother Nature's challenges.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2011, at 2:17 AM, jenoke wrote:

    My problem with Mr. Travis Holum is not that he lacks technological savvy and his world philosophy is decidedly luddite. There are some people who share some of his views and I do not mind reading their work, because they are smart and their view is definitely worthwhile to consider. However, I do not visit the Motley Fool for their philosophy. I come here for investment ideas. People like Holum knows so little about investment that he is likely to drive me away from Motley Fool. Anybody who is advising investors based on the Germans accelerating a scheduled shutdown of 22 reactors and ignoring the close to a thousand nuclear reactors either operating, or in the various phases of planning/commissioning worldwide is just not giving useful investment advice.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2011, at 6:59 AM, Bujutsu wrote:

    As someone who experienced having their house irradiated by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, escaped to the other side of Japan with my child to getting thyroid cancer from the radioactive iodine in our local water, and now has to live in fear of the cesium that is slowly working its way through our local food chain, I think that Mr. Travis Hoium made some very important points that should be thoughtfully considered.

    Just a quick glace at TEPCO's stock price should be enough make anyone seriously think twice about the risks involved before investing in a power company that uses nuclear power to generate electricity:

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/quote?ticker=9501:JP

    The nuclear disaster in Fukushima has certainly influenced my investing strategy, and I do think it is important to raise awareness of the unique dangers that exist with nuclear energy and that likewise nowhere is truly safe from a natural disaster.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2011, at 11:53 AM, TMFFlushDraw wrote:

    @Bujutsu: Thank you for sharing your first hand experience.

    We are all entitled to our opinions and in this case many of you obviously have very different opinions than I have about nuclear power. I do think it is our responsibility as Motley Fool writers to express views that may oppose the main stream and even other writers.

    I've expressed my opinion that shutting down 22 reactors in Germany, NRG Energy writing off its nuclear plant in the US and protests against nuclear in other parts of Europe spell trouble for the industry.

    If you disagree that's just fine. I've presented the other side of the investment and that's part of my responsibility.

    Travis Hoium

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2011, at 4:21 PM, whyaduck1128 wrote:

    Germany decides to shut down its nuclear power plants. How will it replace the lost power capacity? "We'll buy from France".

    What if France decides to go the same route?

    Sooner or later, power has to be generated somewhere, by someone, using some kind of fuel. Coal and oil are finite resources and pollutants. Nuclear is "unsafe". Wind and solar can only go so far, and the NIMBY factor is in play, too. Geothermal is much more limited than wind and solar. Hydro always draws the ire of the tree-hugger crowd (sometimes rightfully so), and there are only so many sites. Natural gas pollutes less or not at all, but again, the supply is finite and no one wants the power plant nearby.

    Human existence depends on trade-offs. There is no free ride. TANSTAAFL. Pray tell, oh all-knowing one, from whence does the power we need (and which you use like anyone else) come?

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2011, at 5:31 PM, NUKEWHALES wrote:

    It is perfectly reasonable to raise questions about the safety of nuclear power in view of the Fukushima accident. Raising a legitimate question, however, is not the same as furnishing an accurate answer. Virtually every industrial activity that involves heat, power or speed is inherently dangerous--that does not mean that they can not be made acceptably safe.

    Any number of nuclear plants are located in seismically active areas--just as any nuber of oil refineries and chemical plants are located in areas subject to hurricanes. Yet robust design and careful execution -- with plenty of government oversight -- reduces the risks of disaster and mitigates impacts when disasters occur. When all those measures fail--a sad inevitability--we go back, learn lessons, and try to do it better. We don't quit refining oil, making chemicals or flying planes.

    Let's look at Fukushima for a moment. Note first that the plants actually survived earthquake accelerations that were from 10 to 100 times beyond the expected maximum.So far, so good.Catastrophe struck when the planned-for tsunami turned out to be twice as high as expected, and swept away the fuel tanks for the back-up generators. The generators themselves may also have been flooded, which did them no good at all. I view this as a design limitation, if not a design error, but it is not something that can not be rectified at other plants with comparable vulnerabilities.

    Having three nuclear units go into meldown simultaneously is a nightmare scenario in any plant manager's dreamscape. Yet in the context of 30,000 civilians having just lost their lives in a quake-cum-tsunami, we must keep some perspective. The reality is that even with major releases of radiation from these shattered plants, no one--NO ONE--has died or even been seriously sickened as a result. Yet.

    Admitedly, that's a big Yet. But if what has happened so far is your idea of the END OF THE WORLD, I urge you to think again about the the impact of the tsunami on the people of the flooded towns and villages. There's a big difference between inconvenience and death.

    Regarding nuclear power generally, I can assure you that there is no chance that the US will back away from it, that the French will back away, that the Koreans will back away, that Russia, China, or India will back away. There may well be -- as there should be -- serious consideration of how to handle "station blackout" conditions (loss of all electric power). Clearly, the current standard of a four-hour battery back-up leaves something to be desired. That does not mean that there are no solutions, or that all solutions are catastrophically costly, or that the industry is in peril.

    Germany's nuttiness on the subject--even when a third of their power comes from nuclear plants--has more to do with Germany's political culture (or at least a large nut-ball chunk of it) than with the inherent safety or operating record of their mainly excellent NPPs. Besides, a few years down the road, when it is realized that Fukushima probably didn't kill anyone, Germany's on-again, off-again nuclear phase-out may be off again. They don't like coal smoke either. And they have probably already hit the practical limit on wind power.

    The reality for uraniun is that mining still does not cover annual need--the balance comes from finite above-ground inventories. Moreover, thanks largely to China and India, uranium demand is set to increase in absolute terms for decades. Junior miners with high-cost production may not fare so well, but the major producers with low-cost production and large reserves are still sitting pretty.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2011, at 4:49 PM, paladin75 wrote:

    I think NUKEWHALES above has provided a very good summary of the issues. However, I wanted to address a specific point of the original article: that there is a limited area of the US that can be used for nuclear power plants.

    The article discussed avoiding hurricane areas. However, a nuclear power plant in the United States has taken a direct hit from a major hurricane without any problems at all. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew, one of only three Category 5 hurricanes ever to hit land in the US, made a direct hit on Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in Homestead, Florida. The two nuclear reactors shut down safely, and sustained no damage or any release of radioactivity. Both units continue to operate safely (and inexpensively) today. The near total lack of publicity shows what a non-event this was.

    I would suggest that hurricanes present no serious threat to nuclear plants designed to resist them, and that this is probably also true for tornadoes.

  • Report this Comment On June 12, 2011, at 7:59 PM, SlipposlappoCom wrote:

    I am a HUGE nuclear fan. Got my degree in Chemical Engineering and spent the whole time jealous of the Nuclear Engineering folks. Physical Chemistry was my favorite course. Nuclear will likely be our future mass energy source. HOWEVER, I still don't get warm and fuzzies when I consider plopping a position down in CCJ. Of course, that's why nuclear stocks are priced the way they are.

    What I can say from my own personal experience slaving in school labs (albeit JV Team compared to Pro League nuclear reactors) and trying to conceptualize generally intangible reactions, is that there was always a bizarre fear/awe that I had for those very reactions I could not see, yet were powerful enough to change the very nature of the world I live in.

    I firmly believe that my awe was derived from my understanding of the math behind the reactions, the reasons certain chemicals behaved the way they did. It really amounted to respect for the reaction. The fear, however, was derived from the ignorance that I believe exists in each person to a certain extent. The fear of a reaction whose only proof of existence are the secondary and tertiary effects like light and heat, ignite a primal instinct to fear what you do not understand; I mean REALLY understand.

    In the case of the average person who flips a switch and demands power, they want power without fear, because lacking the education to understand how that power is generated, they are incapable of being in awe of how that power is harnessed. There is no alternative to nuclear power currently available in our future, but I'm also unsure if nuclear power is for certain our future. That would imply that we've not yet discovered our ideal power source, and that is truly scary.

    Each day that passes I want to buy some CCJ, but I always talk myself out of it. The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. When we're talking about 200,000 year half-lives, that's headline risk that just may not be worth it.

    Cheers!

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