Nuclear energy after Fukushima

At 2:46 in the afternoon of March 11, 2011, Reid Tanaka was at home in Yokosuka, Japan, putting the final touches on his retirement speech. Tanaka had served the U.S. Navy his whole career, including stints aboard four submarines and a nuclear powered aircraft carrier. His last position before retirement was Chief-of-Staff, Task Force 70, aboard the U.S.S. George Washington, a carrier, then permanently forward deployed to Yokosuka.

Reid Tanaka Portrait

Reid Tanaka

“Growing up in California, I was accustomed to the occasional earthquake which would shake us for several seconds,” Tanaka said. “After which, we would conduct some cursory checks of our surroundings and resume our normal routine.”

Not this day. The shaking from the first quake lasted five minutes, followed by a series of intense aftershocks. But the real destructive force was yet to come.

“I didn’t really think about tsunamis until we turned on the TV and saw the tsunami warnings up and down the coast. My thinking had been backwards. There was not a lot of earthquake damage but as we were soon to find out, the tsunami was terribly destructive and massive,” Tanaka recounts.

Indeed. The tsunami, which killed more than 16,000 people, struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant about an hour after the earthquake. The 45-foot tall wall of Map of Fukushimawater destroyed back-up diesel generators that had been cooling Daiichi’s reactor cores after the earthquake knocked-out offsite power to the plant. With no way to cool the reactor cores, three melted down, releasing hydrogen that exploded in the days that followed, demolishing two of the reactor buildings’ secondary containment structures.

For Tanaka, retirement would have to wait.

“The U.S. Navy is well organized for natural disasters, as we often deploy in response to such disasters. After the earthquake, we manned up command centers to take care of the people who might be affected on the base, and get our ships and aircraft ready to deploy to assist the government of Japan. My role was to serve in the latter,” Tanaka said.

Reid Tanaka will be telling his story of being on the ground in the aftermath of Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the response to Fukushima, at Ada’s Technical Books and Café on July 26. The event is sponsored by Friends of Fission, a grassroots group of nuclear energy advocates in the Seattle-area.

Adas Event

We asked Tanaka about his experiences and how seeing the events of Fukushima up close impacted his thoughts and feelings about nuclear energy.

As a nuclear adviser to the U.S. Military Commander, what was your role in the weeks and months after the disaster as events unfolded at Fukushima?

The role was ad hoc and not clearly defined. I was given quite free rein and engaged in many different aspects over the course of the ensuing year.

While the military was focused on relief efforts, the Fukushima reactor accident became a focus of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy – Nuclear Energy, and the National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as capturing the interest of the nuclear power utilities and industry in the U.S. The U.S. technical response was fortified by U.S. utilities and industry which were led by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators. The U.S. nuclear team was headed by the NRC which set up headquarters in the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.


Relief operations following the Tohuko earthquake and tsunami aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan.

A response task force pulls active duty people from all over the Navy who have other “day jobs” and reservists who get “called up” for weeks at a time. Since I was about to retire and had no permanent position, I was an available nuclear trained senior officer and was assigned to replace one of the (joint task force’s) nuclear advisers. The primary role was to help the coordination between the JTF and the U.S. Embassy in the best way I could. Over the next year, I found myself in many roles as the nature of the crisis changed.

Reflecting back, I spent nearly all my time (when not in meetings) poring over technical briefs and reports by the various ministries and agencies from the Japanese government and by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Some people point to the events at Fukushima as a reason not to have nuclear power, but you seem to have come away with a different perspective?

The Fukushima crisis made me look hard at energy. The loss of the 10 reactors at Fukushima Daiichi (6) and Daiini (4) put a major hole in supply as the warm season began. Further exacerbating the shortage, Japan reacted by shutting down all nuclear power plants over the course of a year. In the meantime, the elevators, escalators, lighting and air conditioners were shut down as the citizens in north central Japan aggressively reduced energy consumption. It was a miserable, sweltering summer in Tokyo. In the meantime, to make up for the loss of nuclear capacity, Japan began to resurrect decommissioned fossil fuel plants and imports of oil began to swell.

Any look at energy naturally leads to discussions on global warming and fossil fuels. In examining alternatives, other than nuclear, we are primarily left with a combination of conservation, solar and wind.

If industrialized people were satisfied with intermittent and inconsistent electrical power as experienced in many parts of the third world, then I can perhaps see being satisfied in leaving nuclear power off the table. If people want to reduce our carbon footprint and have reliable energy then I see no other viable way without nuclear power.

“Concerns over global warming demands low or no carbon emitting electrical generation; and I conclude nuclear must play a role.
“Since nuclear is required, then Fukushima provides us a strong reason to improve, not abandon, nuclear power plants.”


Since nuclear energy is vital to our energy future, what do people need to know about it to feel more comfortable with it as an energy choice?

Life is full of trade-offs and we are best served in finding the right balance. The world is full of uninformed opinions which unfortunately tip the scales in the wrong direction. With respect to energy, perhaps the biggest trade-off we make today is gaining the near-term tangible economic benefits from burning fossil fuels. The payment comes later: in the long-term, intangible consequence of global warming and climate change; the soot in the air and ash in our water; the damage to our ecology from drilling and mining; and the eventual spike in energy prices as fossil fuels deplete in this finite earth. Some, like me, would consider our trade-offs are out-of-balance.

Similarly, some would say the trade-off in nuclear also has unacceptable costs. If we were to gain the advantages of long-term low carbon, plentiful, baseload electrical energy from nuclear we would have to accept the payment of long-term waste concerns and potential reactor accidents. In my opinion, the advantages are underappreciated and the fear of radiation (which drives the payment concerns) is overblown. In consequence, the scales, here too, are out-of-balance.

Today’s nuclear power cannot compete given that cheap energy is taken for granted in the U.S. When was the last time you worried that your refrigerator wasn’t running, or your lights wouldn’t come on, or your hot water wasn’t hot? When was the last time your car ran out of gas because you couldn’t find a place to refuel? When was the last time you had to adjust your Netflix binge-watching schedule because of the brown-out from a lack of wind or from a cloudy day? I believe once we start having to worry about on-demand, ubiquitous power, we might change our minds.

Today’s nuclear power cannot compete with the low prices of natural gas (in the U.S.) and coal (in India and China) as long as we aren’t concerned about our carbon dioxide and methane emissions. If we are serious about the latter, we must find a way to pay the higher cost today. As hinted in the previous paragraph, wind or solar cannot provide the complete solution.

Today’s nuclear power cannot compete given our unfounded concerns about the long-term disposition of spent fuel. Today’s storage systems are quite acceptable for decades if not centuries. The amount of spent fuel assemblies in the U.S. is relatively small and the land use footprint can be measured in terms of a football field.

Today’s nuclear power cannot compete if we fail to renew with modern designs. I advocate investigating advanced reactor designs which reflect the technology of this millennium and not the last. Passive safety is a key design requirement of all designs since Fukushima. Passive safety essentially means the reactor will shut down and cool down without the need for external power or human intervention during an accident. (Editor’s note: NuScale’s small modular reactor is one such design).

You looked at the renewables industry after retiring from the Navy, but came back to nuclear energy. Why was that?

I like solar and wind power. I think they have a place. But I think they will only provide a fraction of what we want (and only in localized areas). They certainly do not appear to be able to provide the continuity of base-load power demanded by a modern industrialized society.

Energy storage systems would certainly help smooth the production (supply) ripples, but to date, no large capacity system which can be efficiently scaled and is economical has been identified.

I’ve also read about a number of different contrarian issues such as the land use demand, the cost and supply limitation of exotic materials, the long-term maintenance costs, and the amount of (energy intensive) concrete which would be needed (to build out large amounts of wind and solar). All told, solar and wind are not as “green” as one would first believe.

Until we get the di-lithium crystal warp engines of the Starship Enterprise or the Mr. Fusion DeLorean of Doc Brown we will need fission.

How do you see advanced reactor technology changing perceptions about nuclear energy?

If our government decides to make America a great technology leader again, where we take an aggressive role in education, research and development; where we use our vast talent in our citizenry; where we take advantage of our national laboratories and universities; and where we develop and demonstrate new reactor technologies, then perhaps we can celebrate the nuclear renaissance for which we were known in the 1940s through 1970s.

A second, more likely scenario, less desirable, but better than nothing, is to rely upon other countries. China and India are determined to build advanced reactors. If they are successful in demonstrating a reduction of accident risk (and public evacuation), reduction of long-term waste concerns, and lower costs, then I believe we might be able to convince a skeptical U.S. citizenry to get on board.

Finally, there are a few voices in the nuclear frontier that have resources and clout and have a chance of achieving that break through. One being Bill Gates.

(Posted by John Dobken)


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