Like everybody else, no doubt, I am finding it difficult to pay attention to anything but the catastrophe in Japan.
Coverage of the nuclear emergency is probably as informative as it can be under the circumstances--but still I find it frustrating. Purportedly analytical accounts are muddled; obvious questions are left unresolved or unaddressed; there are inconsistencies all over the place. Much of this is unavoidable, I know, but the problem is compounded by the journalistic propensity to glide around what you don't know or have failed to understand.
From the start of this calamity I have wanted to know, "What is the worst that can happen at these nuclear sites? Suppose everything that could go wrong does go wrong: what then?" I still don't know the answer. In what I have read so far--dozens of articles--nobody who knows what he is talking about has spelt this out carefully.
My father, who retired many years ago, was a mechanical engineer in the British nuclear power industry. He worked on the designs of several new reactors, specialising in the handling of fuel. I vividly recall his telling me decades ago that the thing that concerned him most about nuclear power was not the reactors but the storage of spent fuel. This needed to be very carefully managed. If planners insisted on giving nuclear installations the smallest footprint, everything would be on the same site. What would happen to the spent fuel if an accident meant a site had to be evacuated? Insufficient attention was being paid to this, he said. The conversation passed through my mind as soon as the first reports of problems at Fukushima appeared. Where do they put the spent fuel?