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After the Quake

Hard realities and consequences regarding energy

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The eastern coastal areas of Japan's three main prefectures--Iwate, Fukushima and Miyagi--were leveled on March 11, in the aftermath of an earthquake of historical magnitude (9.0), followed by a tsunami, a wall of water as high as 46 feet.

From countless Internet images, video clips, cell phone calls, tweets and blogs, as well as old-fashioned 24/7 global news coverage, the devastation was quickly apparent. We then learned that the Fukushima nuclear power plant--six nuclear reactors--had survived the quake and tsunami but were in an unknown state of damaged "functionality." That is, the reactors were either shut down at the time of the quake or shut down as the ground began to shudder.

Shut-down systems worked as designed and until the tsunami, the back-up diesel generators operated to remove what is called the "decay heat" from the reactors. This was all good, except there was no electrical power. Further, following the tsunami, many things were submerged. Still, the decay heat was persistent.

More than three weeks later, the utility, Tokyo Electric Power Company, and the Japanese government are still trying to manage the situation. I will not say much on the technical aspects--one can read from many sources. As a Japanese-American professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho in Idaho Falls, and having worked five years professionally in Japan, I have followed daily news with more interest than usual thanks to my bicultural background. I have watched Internet news and news sites in both Japanese and English. There is a lot to be said about cross-checking facts. Indeed, there is something "lost in translation."

Further, during my stay in Japan, I worked and lived through what some may call a unique "crisis logbook." That is, the following events: 1) the post-Hanshin earthquake, which killed 6,200 people and caused more than $100 billion in economic damage in 1995; 2) the sarin gas attack in January 1995, resulting in 13 deaths and 6,200 people exposed to poisonous gas; 3) the Monju nuclear reactor sodium leak and fire; 4) the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant bituminization facility fire and explosion; and 5) the JCO nuclear accident.

Back in the United States, like many, I witnessed 9/11 and the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. So, without pride, I can say that I've learned and witnessed crisis management. So, what can I make of this?

I can say that there is indeed a cultural element to the developments. Specifically, the incremental and steadfast manner in which both TEPCO and the Japanese government have announced progress in the F-NPP accident management tends to the side of frustration. Although we should respect the sovereignty of Japan, as I have said, radiation knows no borders. I worry about the future of nuclear energy and energy security. I have thus been thinking that this situation calls for international participation in order to make proactive progress toward managing the post-accident phases in a timely and predictable manner.

The United States has some 105 commercial nuclear power plants, some similar to the older reactor models at Fukushima. In fact, if we decide to terminate the service life of our existing reactors at 60 years, many will have to be decommissioned between years 2035-2055. So, it is possible that we will have energy shortages in the coming years unless we construct new reactors, substantially increase alternative energy sources or simply live with less energy.

Recall that nearly 20 percent of electricity today is generated from nuclear energy. This is equivalent to one work day per week running the U.S. economy and supporting today's energy-intensive, modern lifestyle. As I see it, we now have the same choice that many countries, foremost Japan, have regarding water, energy consumption and nuclear power. When the U.S. population was 150 million, everyone had one TV (off between 11:30 p.m. and morning), one car, one house and all stores were closed on Sundays. We used less energy than we do today. So a world can exist without Internet, cell phones and year-round, unbounded energy consumption.

It seems clear that we need to make a choice: either have nuclear energy as part of the energy mix (20 percent or more) or find energy sources, such as solar and wind, to compensate for reliable nuclear energy. Please remember, though, that more than 1,000, 1-megawatt windmills are needed for the equivalent energy output of one nuclear plant (assuming that the wind is always available).

So, please think about valuing our energy and water resources, how it impacts our life and how it determines what kind of a world we leave for our children. Conserve and do not take it for granted.

Akira Tokuhiro is a professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at the University of Idaho in Idaho Falls. He can be reached at tokuhiro@uidaho.edu.

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