A nuclear Hawaii?

Samson Kaala Reiny

EWA—In the State of Hawaii’s quest to get 70 percent of its power from clean energy by 2030, lawmakers are looking at all options, including nuclear power. This past legislative session, there were several measures introduced by Hawaii lawmakers to create a State nuclear energy commission and a permitting process for nuclear energy. None of the measures, including House Bill 62 and Senate Bill 874, passed.

Nuclear power lobbyists rallied particularly hard at the Hawaii State Capitol in 2009, but did not make any ground. The nuclear industry has also come up short in state Legislatures in Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Missouri, and North Carolina in the last three years.

Sara Barczak, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said of the nuclear industry’s failed lobbying efforts: “Though many utilities, lawmakers, and regulatory commissioners in the Southeastern U.S. continue to blindly support building new nuclear reactors that put ratepayers at risk, the public is growing ever more skeptical of nuclear power. Given the victories to stop these anti-consumer agendas nationally, including the temporary pull back in North Carolina, the tide may be turning. The fallout from Fukushima is yet to be fully known and likely will further erode the public’s acceptance of this high cost, high risk energy option.”

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis that followed the Japan earthquake in March, particularly the fears of radiation being blown across the Pacific to Hawaii, has provoked plenty of talk about the dangers of harnessing this kind of power. So it’s worth clarifying what nuclear power is and how things could get potentially disastrous on a grand scale.

All power plants operate similarly in that they convert a source of heat—whether it is from coal, petroleum, natural gas, or nuclear energy—into mechanical energy and then into electrical power.

For a very typical example of this, coal is burned in a large furnace, which then heats water into steam. Energy from the steam creates pressure that spins metal blades (this instrument is called a steam turbine) that are connected to an electric generator, which converts that kinetic energy into electrical energy. This power is then transmitted through power lines to our homes and businesses.

Now, just take coal out of the equation and replace it with another source of heat: nuclear fission. In scientific terms, nuclear fission typically occurs when a neutron collides with the nucleus of an atom, which causes it to split into two, and in the process, releases massive amounts of energy that goes on to heat water that powers the steam turbine (for example, a pound of highly enriched Uranium [U-235] powering the propellers of a nuclear submarine equals about two million gallons of gasoline). The U-235 isotope is used because each atom that splits also releases three neutrons, which can go on to create a chain reaction. U-235, U-239, and Plutonium-239 are isotopes that can react efficiently in this way, and for this reason they are considered fissionable.

Hawaii currently does not have any nuclear plants. It’s in the State Constitution that “No nuclear fission power plant shall be constructed or radioactive material disposed of in the State without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature.”

The State, by and large, uses petroleum to generate the necessary heat for its electricity conduction. Petroleum power plants emit vast amounts of carbon dioxide, which is a main greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. (But among petroleum, natural gas, and coal, the latter’s use in power plants tend to do the most environmental damage.) While properly running nuclear plants does not emit these toxins, in the event of a disaster, a deadly long-lasting catastrophe is a very real possibility. 

The problem, realized by past incidences at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in Ukraine, and, most recently at Fukushima, is the threat of a nuclear meltdown. Because the heat emitted by fission is so great, cooling systems are put in place to remove enough heat from the reactor core where the fission occurs. When this cooling system breaks down, and the backup Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS) fails, there should also be a containment building—a steel or reinforced concrete structure that is a nuclear power plant’s last defense from a radiation leak.

Radiation leaks can be deadly because they release various rays (alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron) that can alter the basic make-up of any living thing by stripping its atoms of electrons. This can cause cell death as well as genetic mutations, which can lead to cancer.

The recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown released radioactive isotopes into the air. Although a June 11 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) declared that, so far, there had been no reports of long time health effects from the spillage. 

Nevertheless, the nuclear debate has been pushed into the spotlight around the world. Mass anti-nuclear protests across Germany sparked a nationwide initiative to shut down all its nuclear plants by 2022.

The issue of whether Hawaii should adopt nuclear energy has been debated in the islands before, and the two opinions expressed here in Hawaii Business synthesize the arguments for both sides well. In light of Fukushima, though, a good guess is that people are more fearful than ever of its potential harms.

Editor’s note: At 11:50 a.m. on July 11, added the link and description of the Hawaii State Constitution two-thirds vote.