Energy takes center stage due to two dramatic events - war in Libya and nuclear problems in Japan.  I wrote about the reality of war in Libya’s effect on crude oil supplies, essentially Libya is not a major factor and loss of that supply can be made up by surplus oil capability in other places.  However, if the revolution rolling over all of North Africa and the Middle East picks up steam there will be more harmful interruptions.

I am one of the few Americans who actually got inside a Soviet built nuclear reactor prior to the fall of Communism.  The reactor involved was in Finland where I regularly escorted visiting American officials to see the one Soviet reactor outside the “Iron Curtain.”   I am also one of the few people anywhere to have inspected a Swedish built reactor.  And of course I have seen American reactors up close.  Last but not least, I sent New Year’s 2000 just down wind from the destroyed reactors at Chernobyl when many believed the YK2 Bug would cause further damage there.   In short I have a fair idea of how nuclear reactors function and what problems they can have.

As sensitive as the public may be to nuclear reactors, they are used to power our most potent naval vessels, submarines and aircraft carriers.  Proof that they can be made safe is the fact that the crews of these vessels, especially the submariners, including former President Carter, live chock-a-block with these reactors without suffering any medical problems.  In fact our nuclear power reactors are based on the reactors built for our submarines.  Of course, the science fiction fan will recall the mysterious fuel that powered Jules Verne’s submarine in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”  What a visionary!

Yes, the destruction caused by the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused substantial damage to a group of Japanese reactors (nuclear reactors are grouped because of the difficulty in getting permission to erect them at any location, thus once a location is approved, it is easier to build more there, than in other locations).  So far the extent of the damage and danger has been hard to pin down completely but it appears as though emergency measures are working.   One certain thing is that there will be no nuclear blast with mushroom cloud.  The uranium used is not enriched enough to do this.  But there can be more radiation leaks.

Much has been made of the emergency use of water and specifically sea water to cool the reactors and prevent meltdowns which could crack the containment vessels and let loose lots of radiation.  I remember the reactor in Finland.  While it was a Soviet built reactor, the safety system was a Westinghouse design.  The most visible item inside the iconic dome building was a steel box about four feet wide by three feet deep that ringed the inside of the building about 20 feet from the floor.  I asked on my first visit what the box was for. My hosts explained that it was the first defense in an emergency.  The box was filled with dry ice which if unleashed would instantly “freeze” the reactor.  Probably a more effective defense than water pumps used to flood the reactors in Japan. 

Nuclear based electric energy is a clean, safe, reliable, and efficient source of power.  You may be  interested in knowing that the average nuclear power station emits less radiation than the average coal fired power plant.  And God knows coal fired plants produce far more polluting fumes.  In fact, nuclear plants cause no degradation of the environment, something not even hydro or solar or aeolic power can say.  Unfortunately the Japan disaster will most likely outweigh the good points of nuclear power and slow down its development once more.