Nuke ‘em? (11)

Photo: AFP / US Archives / Scanpix
5/6/2011 10:00 AM
Category: Opinion

Estonia is discussing a nuclear reactor. But are they capable of properly building one?

Today in Tartu I took a stroll down the promenade along the Emajõgi River and noticed a new structure—rather tall, sleek and modern—that indicates how high the water level is. This water meter forces its user to look up, and not down, to see what is already in front of their eyes. Closer inspection reveals that the shiny panels are already loose (it was erected only a few months ago), the pedestal has exposed Styrofoam padding and its border is held together with duct tape.

Surely the money I have paid in taxes over the past twelve years could be put to better use. I understand the government’s need to economize while conducting a procurement, but I would like to know if there is a line that can be crossed—any line really, even a shady buffer zone—in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable quality in the construction industry.

I would consider myself a reluctant fan of nuclear energy. Atomic power on paper is perfect. There is no obstacle that cannot be overcome in the design stage. Earthquakes and tsunamis can be accounted for (the Japanese reactors in question both survived these catastrophes), but not human error. The problem in Japan is a result of inadequate protection of the backup cooling generators, which were destroyed by the tsunami because of a design flaw: they were outside and relatively unprotected in a region prone to powerful flooding.

Maintenance of the Japanese plant is also an issue. Government inspectors repeatedly issued warnings regarding the safety flaw with the backup generators. Nothing happened. After the tripartite disaster in that country, it became evident that the owner of the Fukushima Daiichi plant—the Tokyo Electric Power Company—had routinely falsified safety reports and covered up near mishaps in their various nuclear facilities.

Japan has one of the best worldwide reputations for innovation and quality. Higher than Germany or any other country in the European Union, including Estonia. And as Anne Applebaum asked in Slate, “If the Japanese can’t build a completely safe nuclear plant, who can?”

Estonia now wants to build a nuclear plant. There are no natural disasters here that I can think of. Occasional flooding and semi-strong winds can be easily overcome with foresight. And if the unthinkable does happen? Nuclear technology has greatly advanced since its inception. There are smaller reactors specifically designed not to go into meltdown in the event of a thousandfold spike in output. The fissile material used today has a much shorter half-life, meaning contamination won’t last as long, and feasibly wouldn’t happen at all with continuing technological advancement.

But these new technologies are expensive. Nuclear energy is only truly safe if every effort is expended to prevent disaster. There can be no cost-cutting. There can be no economization on construction. There can be no Makroflex foam to fill in the gaps.

Human fallibility is a certainty and will thus forever leave doubt in my mind—and it should in yours, too. The only thing we can really do is make less dangerous decisions. Oil shale for electricity is one of the nastiest, dirtiest sources of carbon dioxide pollution known. Obviously this has to be changed. Even if cleaner production technologies for oil shale are developed, the destructive effects of mining it on Estonian soil remain unavoidable. But is going nuclear really in Estonia’s best interests? My concern is what is not even perfect on paper: people. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are perfect examples.

I don't want to be a fearmonger, but there are obvious questions the people of Estonia must ask themselves, and which would be applicable anywhere in the world. Is it worth the risk, despite the safety advances? Do they trust a member of parliament to make the right choice when the budget for the nuclear plant is exceeded and cuts need to be made? Does that politician know anything about what is necessary to shore up gamma radiation emitted by radioactive isotopes in nuclear waste? Can any politician be trusted to not siphon funding from the multi-billion-euro price tag for construction in order to pay off parking fines for their Mercedes-Benz E 350?

The Estonian government has a practice of buying the cheapest materials for jobs, including used machinery such as busses and trams. It probably would be a bad idea for the reactor to have a label that reads “Made in Ukraine.”

What resources does Estonia have at its disposal in the event of catastrophe? The most dangerous road in the EU—the Tallinn–Tartu highway—still remains so today. The government clearly is less than enthusiastic about public safety. And while Estonian universities are launching a nuclear-energy master’s program with mostly imported instructors from the Czech Republic and Hungary to teach in English, only a dozen or so students are expected to enroll. A typical nuclear facility requires hundreds of employees. Nukes cannot be the answer to unemployment. 

The “field houses” of the boom time, the Solaris Center and its collapsing roof, brand new roads that are covered in potholes before summer ends, the Freedom Monument, which it seems will never be free of defects—there is no indication that construction competence is improving. A better use for the money used to build Tartu’s river meter would have been a gauge measuring this construction competence. You can’t build a nuclear reactor containment building out of drywall, after all.

Stewart Johnson firmly believes all Estonians should have the continuing right to live… in Estonia.

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