A Radioactive Situation

Japan's earthquake could shake public trust in the safety of nuclear power.

Is nuclear power too risky in earthquake-prone countries such as Japan? On March 11, a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake shook Japan and caused widespread damage especially in the northeastern region of Honshu, the largest Japanese island. Nuclear power plants throughout that region automatically shut down when the plants' seismometers registered ground accelerations above safety thresholds.

But all the shutdowns did not go perfectly. Reactor unit 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station experienced a mechanical failure in the emergency safety system. In response, officials ordered the evacuation of residents who live within two miles of the plant. Also, people living between two to 10 miles were ordered to stay indoors. The Japanese government described this order as a precautionary measure.

A worst-case accident would release substantial amounts of radioactive materials into the environment. This is unlikely to happen, but is still possible. Modern commercial nuclear power plants like the Fukushima plant use defense-in-depth safety measures. The first line of defense is fuel cladding that provides a barrier to release of highly radioactive fission products. Because these materials generate a substantial amount of heat, coolant is essential. Thus, the next lines of defense are to ensure that enough cooling water is available. The reactor coolant pumps are designed to keep water flowing through the hot core. But loss of electric power to the pumps will stop this flow. Backup electric power sources such as off-site power and on-site emergency diesel generators offer another layer of defense.

Unfortunately, these emergency power sources were knocked out about one hour after the plant shut down. Although it is unclear from the reporting to date, this power outage appears to have occurred at about the same time that a huge tsunami, triggered by the earthquake, hit that part of Japan.

Sustained loss of electric power could result in the core overheating and the fuel melting. However, three other backup systems provide additional layers of defense. First, the plant has batteries to supply power for about four hours. Second, the emergency core cooling system can inject water into the core. Finally, the containment structure, made of strong reinforced concrete, surrounds the reactor and can under even the most severe conditions prevent radioactive materials from entering the environment.

But the earthquake -- the largest in the 140 years of recorded history of Japanese earthquakes -- might have caused some damage to the containment structure. Japanese authorities announced that they will vent some steam from the containment structure to reduce the pressure buildup. This action may release small amounts of radioactive gas. The authorities do not expect any threat to the public.

Although a meltdown will most likely not occur, this incident will surely result in significant financial harm and potential loss of public confidence. For example, it was less than four years ago, in July 2007, when the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, Japan's largest, suffered shaking beyond its design basis acceleration. The plant's seven reactors were shut down for 21 months while authorities carefully investigated the extent of the damage. Fortunately, public safety was not harmed and the plant experienced no major damage. However, the government accepted responsibility for approving construction of the first reactor near a geological fault line, which was unknown at the time of construction. The biggest loss was financial. In particular, the fiscal year 2007 loss was estimated at $5.62 billion with about three-fourths of that to replace the 8,000 megawatts of generating capacity from the nuclear plant.

Japan has balanced this financial risk against the risk of energy insecurity. Because it lacks abundant natural resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas, Japan imports more than 80 percent of its energy supplies. The 1973 oil shock from the Arab oil embargo convinced Japanese leaders that they needed to reduce their country's dependence on foreign oil. At that time, oil was used to generate about 66 percent of Japan's electricity. Nuclear energy offered a means to reduce this dependency. Today, nuclear power generates about 30 percent of Japan's electricity while oil accounts for 11 percent.

Tokyo wants to further increase nuclear power's share of electricity generation to 41 percent in 2017 and 50 percent by 2050. Japan presently has 54 commercial nuclear reactors and is building two more. It has plans for at least a dozen more in the coming decades.

From conversations I have had in recent years with Japanese nuclear energy officials, I have learned that they prefer a balanced portfolio with not too much reliance on a single source of energy for electricity. But moving toward one-half of Japan's electricity from nuclear power appears too risky in light of the recent massive earthquake. About one-fifth of Japan's nuclear plants were shut down. A prolonged shutdown of a significant portion of Japan's electric generators could affect public well-being -- for example, hospitals need reliable power supplies -- and could harm the Japanese economy.

One possible solution is to ramp up Japan's use of renewable energy sources. However, politically powerful forces stand in the way of greater development of renewable energy. Japan has 10 major electric utilities that wield tremendous political influence over local and national governments. The utility executives favor large power generators such as nuclear power plants. Wind, solar, and geothermal plants tend to be much smaller in power generation.

In 2010, the Japan Renewable Energy Policy Platform, an association of several renewable energy organizations, issued the first renewable energy white paper published in Japan. Its report underscores the lack of government incentives for increasing use of renewable energy. Japan had been in first place in the world in solar photovoltaic installation until 2004, when the government cut financial support. Moreover, renewable portfolio standards have been set too low. National targets were reached in recent years but have only resulted in a small fraction of electric power from non-hydro power sources. Furthermore, most geothermal power is not included in the renewable energy targets because of concerns about water use and the effects on spas. But geothermal has a huge potential because of Japan's location in a geologically active zone. In sum, renewable sources could provide about 67 percent of Japan's electricity by 2050 if the government would implement effective policies.

Japan, a world leader in nuclear power, should also become a leader in use of renewable energies. This will help alleviate safety and financial concerns about too much dependence on nuclear energy. It will also point the way toward a sustainable energy future for the world.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


America Has Beaten Qaddafi Before

I know, because I helped supply the weapons.

As the world debates how best to stop the slaughter in Libya, it's worth remembering that the United States has successfully countered Muammar al-Qaddafi's military before.

Qaddafi has a track record of misadventures extending back to the Libyan revolution, which brought him to power at the head of a military junta in 1969. He supported terrorism all over the world and had a penchant for stirring up trouble in Africa. In the late 1970s he sent troops to support Ugandan President Idi Amin, who was under assault from opponents coming from Tanzania. And in 1983, he launched a massive invasion (by African standards) of his neighbor to the south, Chad.

Chad was of no particular importance to the United States. It was part of Francophone Africa, and the French had the primary interest there among Western countries. Moreover, any resources the country had were in the south (deemed "Tchad Utile" -- useful Chad -- by the French), not in the desert north occupied by Libya. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a more useless part of the planet.

Nevertheless, Washington did not want to be seen as acquiescing to Colonel Qaddafi's invasion of another country -- even if it was only Chad. Bear in mind that 1983 was an extraordinary year of regional turmoil: The Iran-Iraq war was endangering oil flows in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was attacked in April and the Marine barracks in October, the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in September when it strayed over their territory, U.S. troops invaded Grenada in October, the Iraqi Islamic Dawa Party (with ties to the current leadership in Baghdad) conducted attacks in Kuwait including bombing the U.S. Embassy, and Donald Rumsfeld visited Saddam Hussein in December in Baghdad as the United States began to tilt toward Iraq to contain Iran. On the global strategic level, U.S. President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative, announced in March 1983, threatened to upset the balance of power between the United States and the USSR.

I happened to be in the State Department's Political-Military Bureau at the time. Among my other duties, I was given responsibility for security assistance to Chad in response to the Libyan invasion.

With so much on the agenda of senior officials, there was -- by today's standards -- a lot of flexibility given to lower-level experts and operations officers. From our perspective, the Libyan problem was one that the United States could address, within certain political limits. The key point was that we did not want to get out ahead of the French in Chad. Nor did Washington want to inadvertently inherit Chad as "its" problem. We had enough other crises on our plates. Nevertheless, we did not want Qaddafi -- or anyone else, for that matter -- to think that the United States would acquiesce to such aggression without paying a price.

The policy goal was therefore pretty clear -- and limited. At the working level, we considered what we could do to assist the limited Chadian "army" in repulsing the Libyan invasion. Then as now, Libyan forces had better equipment than personnel and leadership. They were kitted out with all sorts of Soviet helicopters, aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, tanks, and armored personnel carriers. And given the vast expanses of territory involved, they had very, very long logistics lines with not much in the way of logistical support.

The Chadians were very poorly equipped. But they had a distinct advantage because most were tribesmen from northern Chad and were accustomed to the bleak desert that the Libyans were now occupying in a handful of military bases at remote places like Faya-Largeau, Fada, and Ouadi Doum (pronounced "doom," and so it was for many of the Libyans sent there). The Chadians were also motivated to defend their land, while the Libyans only wanted to survive and go home as soon as possible.

Our military assistance was limited not only by our carefully circumscribed aims, but also by the difficulty of working in Chad itself. One problem the Chadians had was transport to staging areas in the north from the capital, N'Djamena. So, we provided a number of trucks and less usefully, a couple of old C-130s (Chad had just one pilot at the time). U.S. military weapons were generally too sophisticated and delicate for use by the Chadians -- and they had a hard time maintaining them. Moreover, to simplify training, anything that involved indirect fire (such as mortars or artillery) was not really useful. It was pretty much all point and shoot: Jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles, ad hoc fabricated 12.7mm machine guns mounted on Toyota Land Cruisers, simple anti-tank weapons, and regular old rifles.

The one problem the Chadians had was air cover. While the French deployed Jaguar fighters out of N'Djamena airport to prevent Libyan aircraft from attacking further south, they were not inclined to provide air support to a Chadian attack against the Libyans. The French were in a defensive mode only.

They did not object, however, to the Chadians acquiring man-portable anti-aircraft missiles (in this case, Stingers). Although some degree of training is required to operate them, it did not take many gunners to provide a deterrent that kept Libyan aircraft at higher, less effective altitudes. On the rare occasion when Libyans dropped bombs, the aircraft were barely visible from the ground and they were completely inaccurate. The missiles were apparently also successful in keeping Libyan Mi-8 and Mi-25 helicopters out of the way.

Ultimately, the Chadians swept through Libyan positions, and Qaddafi's forces withdrew to Libya. The Libyans were badly led, badly positioned, and could not make use of their seemingly superior weapons.

Although today Qaddafi's security forces are fighting a defensive battle on their home turf, there are important similarities to the Chadian events. Chiefly, the United States presumably wants to limit its political commitment, and the nature and type of aid it may consider is also limited. But so are the needs of the Libyan opposition.

Assuming the rebels can achieve at least the level of organization and training of the Chadians, the material and training support can be rudimentary and accomplished quickly by outside experts, from either a government (France comes to mind, since the country has been first off the mark to recognize officially the opposition in Libya) or even a private company.

The most obvious military risk to the opposition is from helicopter gunships and possibly aircraft (the accuracy of Libyan bombing is dubious and the military effectiveness minimal, but the effects on civilians can be horrible). The United States provided Stinger missiles to the ragtag Chadian forces with significant effect. Back then, accounting for the missiles was easier given the very small numbers. Today, if Stinger missiles or similar Soviet weapons were deployed to Libyan opposition forces, the risks of loss would be manageable, and providing such missiles would certainly be cheaper and less of a commitment than establishing a no-fly zone. And if Qaddafi's forces summon forth heretofore unseen skill and/or courage, a decision on more elaborate air defense could be made later.

For now, however, let's recognize that there are options for arming and training the Libyan opposition that do not require the massive military and political commitments of a no-fly zone.