The conversation: Evaluating the risk of nuclear power plants
How big a threat are nuclear power plants? Are we prepared for a nuclear meltdown should one occur? And who the heck can we trust?
Nuclear fails the test
This page takes the threat of climate change very seriously, and would be delighted if a safe, cost-effective way of producing carbon-emissions-free nuclear power were developed. Sadly, we're not there yet. Nuclear power plants are so expensive, and their risks so extreme, that private investors are reluctant to fund them even with huge government subsidies and loan guarantees. Plans to build a national repository for nuclear waste in Nevada have been shelved, meaning radioactive waste is being stockpiled at individual plants in a way that is unsustainable. And then there's the threat of a Japan-type disaster. […] The U.S. gets 20% of its electricity from nuclear plants, and many are nearing the end of their useful lives, so limited construction of new plants in inland states where the risk of natural disaster is low might be acceptable — at least if Washington ever gets a handle on the waste-storage problem. But there are more cost-effective ways of weaning the country off climate-warming fossil fuels, namely improved energy efficiency and more renewable power. In the cost-benefit analysis, nuclear doesn't add up.
Two cheers for nuclear safety
With what's happening in Japan, it's natural to see renewed concern about the safety of nuclear power and I'm certainly glad we didn't vote for the candidate who dismissed the idea that nuclear energy ought to be safe. But I do think it’s worth speaking up for a nuclear industry a bit. The question is safe compared to what? The Alaskan king crab fishery is very dangerous, but it's safer than a couple of other forms of fishing. And by the same token, it’s hardly the case that coal mining or drilling for oil or risk-free alternatives.
Talk about a meltdown
[T]he "radiation clouds" released thus far at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) facility have the equivalent of a single dental X-ray before they quickly dissipate, nuclear power expert William Tucker noted in the Wall Street Journal. […] The damaged reactors are ruined, but so what? Cars are designed to be ruined after a major accident too. We routinely, and wisely, trade salvageability for survivability. Few skyscrapers in the United States can withstand a 9.0 earthquake — should we stop making tall buildings? The lesson here just might be that the earthquake proved the system worked, not that it failed.
What can we believe? Who should we trust?
I couldn't help but think about the promises made by an industry that for decades has peddled nuclear energy as clean, reliable, safe and (in recent years) even climate-friendly -- reassurances that literally exploded before our very eyes. While watching CNN International's earthquake coverage on Sunday morning, I thought about the fundamental disconnect between what we were seeing, and what the authorities were telling us.
Nuclear power is worth the risk; the industry must establish trust with the public
When it comes to safety, the nuclear industry emphasizes the concept of "defense in depth." Reactors are designed with layers of redundant safety systems. There's the main cooling system, a backup to it, a backup to the backup, a backup to the backup to the backup, and so on. A major accident can only occur if all these systems fail simultaneously. By adding extra layers of redundancy, the probability of such a catastrophic failure can -- in theory at least -- be made too small to worry about. […] It is vital the nuclear industry does not make the same mistake now. It must not try to sweep safety issues under the carpet by telling people that everything is OK and that they should not worry. This strategy simply won't work. What might work is to acknowledge the problem and work to fix it.
Preparation is key
Despite pressure from Congress, the Obama administration has declined to overturn a Bush era directive to supply the pills within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear plant rather than 20. The policy emphasized evacuation, avoiding local foods and other measures in addition to iodine. […]
"The Japanese nuclear crisis is already worse than the Three Mile Island accident and is clearly the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl,” [Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.] wrote Monday to Dr. John Holdren, the director of White House science and technology policy. “We should not wait for a catastrophic accident at or a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor in this country to occur to implement this common-sense preparedness measure."
-- Alexandra Le Tellier
Photo: Smoke rises from Japan's Fukushima nuclear complex about after a second hydrogen explosion rocked the plant Monday. Credit: Reuters