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Nuclear power: The end, or a new beginning?

San Onofre

You can stick a fork in it. The future of nuclear power in America, that is.

There's nothing quite like seeing the words "Japan battles to avert nuclear meltdown" on your TV screen or "Risk of meltdown increases at Japan nuclear reactor" in your newspaper to focus the mind, is there? 

For example, The Times on Monday ran this headline: "Japan's crisis may have already derailed 'nuclear renaissance.' " 

Ya think?

Nuclear power plants have one fatal flaw: To be totally safe, nothing must go wrong -– ever. And, from Three Mile Island, to Chernobyl, to Japan -– heck, to the Titanic -– something always goes wrong with the stuff we build.

From that one problem comes many. Not the least of which is, nuclear plants have to be built somewhere, and somewhere is always someone’s backyard. And in today’s United States, "not in my backyard" is the new "don’t tread on me."

But it's strange relationship, Americans and risk. For example, what if I said the lesson of the Sendai quake is that it shows we should build nuclear plants?

Lock up the loony guy, right?

Sure, OK. But first, answer this: How many people have died so far in Japan's nuclear crisis? That's right: None that we know of.

But how many people died last year from coal-produced energy? Hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions: the miners killed in accidents, or from lung disease; the people in surrounding areas who've died from diseases caused by the pollution spewed by the plants; and then there are those of us at risk from the global warming caused by the burning of a fossil fuel.

So why do we vilify nuclear power?

Perhaps for the same reason we demand so many safety measures in air travel, yet we willingly accept that thousands more of us will die each year in auto accidents than in air crashes.

Nonsense, you say: Nuclear power just isn't safe. We can't build new plants. Learn from Japan.

OK. Nuclear power isn't safe. So go shut down San Onofre right now. And Diablo Canyon. And all the other nuclear plants in the U.S.

Oh, we can't do that. We need that electricity. Our rates would go through the roof. We'd have rolling blackouts, or worse.

And then there's our military. Remember, we have nuclear power plants on board our aircraft carriers and submarines. We've put dangerous propulsion systems on ships that, if a war breaks out, the enemy will try to blow up and sink. And yet we built and launched the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush -– nuclear powered, of course -– in 2009. Where was the furor then?

So, new nuclear power is dangerous, but the nuclear power we already have is, uh, OK then?

As for lessons of the Japan crisis, one of them is this: An aging plant built with 1960s technology has -– so far -– endured the worst possible natural disaster and, though badly damaged, has survived.

Imagine how much better we could build such a plant today. After all, when the 1906 great quake destroyed San Francisco, everyone didn’t leave the Bay Area. We took the lessons from it, and from other quakes, and we built smarter and better.

Nuclear power may not be the future. Personally, I prefer solar, wind and other such sources.

But the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico didn't stop us from drilling for oil. And the disaster in Japan shouldn't stop us from a reasonable discussion of nuclear power.

RELATED:

Economy: The other fallout from Japan

Will Angelenos learn from the Japan quake?

As Cuba explores for oil, U.S. embargo could hurt both countries

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: The San Onofre nuclear power plant in northern San Diego County, south of San Clemente. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

 

Comments () | Archives (9)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Don

"Nuclear power plants have one fatal flaw: To be totally safe, nothing must go wrong -– ever. And, from Three Mile Island, to Chernobyl, to Japan -– heck, to the Titanic -– something always goes wrong with the stuff we build."

should have ended the article right there.

Think SMALL: de-centralizing energy production will make building gargantuan potentially dangerous power plants unnecessary.

Think solar panels on every roof - small waste-burning power plants at the neighborhood level - and Scott Brusaw's of Solar Roadways idea of paving roads with solar collectors looks very promising.

We don't NEED to build more giant power plants even if we think we do.

nazcalito

You're comparing apples and oranges when you compare power plants and nuclear submarines. A submarine can't burn fuel when it is underwater, so it either has to be nuclear or run on the surface most of the time to recharge its batteries. The power plant is also much, much smaller on a submarine

dangermouse

Knee-jerk reaction from the same save the butterflies and unicorn 'activists' who pontificate to the rest of us the evils of nukes, fossil fuel and man's carbon foot print.

All this while driving their Suburbans, blow drying their hair and lighting up the night sky during their backyard cocktail parties.

What's the reaction to producing large amounts of arsenic, sulfuric, hydrochloric and hydroflouric acids and their oh so biodegradable by-products, just to name some of the color that make up a rainbow.... to fabricate solar panels.

The major flaw which is in hindsight, pretty embarrassing - if you are depending on producing your own electricity to power core cooling, you've flaw from the get-go. Lesson learned.

Have water towers that use only gravity to scram the core. Duh.

Chris

@And the disaster in Japan shouldn't stop us from a reasonable discussion of nuclear power@

Right. However, the disaster in Japan should encourage us to start a resonable discussion of nucler power in Japan and other areas with high seismic activity.

A plant at a peaceable French plane and one at seismic Japansese shore - which one is more safe? the answer is obvious

JamesP

Bear in mind that the three Japanese plants that are in trouble are 40 years old - dinosaurs in technological terms. They were scheduled to be decommissioned in a year or so and replaced with newer ones that would not have needed backup generators (the ones that got flooded).

Comparing those reactors to ones that would be built today is like comparing a Model T with a jet airplane.

None of the many other reactors in Japan are having any such problems.

And the media throwing around the word "meltdown" is their usual making things sound worse (as if the situation in Japan needs to sound any worse) to keep us tuned in. The reactors have shut down. The decay heat may in fact cause the fuel to melt if no cooling water is supplied, but any radiation release will be easily contained within the dome. There will be no explosion. There will be no fallout. Relax.

bob sarnoff

How will rising sea levels affect coastal nuclear power plants such as San Onofre and Diablo Canyon?

mike harris

If nuclear power was safe, then private insurance companies would insure them. But they won't. The Price-Anderson act had to be passed, with the government promising to clean up after any disaster using the taxpayer dime. The government also had to promise to clean up the nuclear waste the plants produced, before any private company would invest in nuclear. Is this the free market at work?
These nuclear advocates are like little kids who keep wrecking their parents car, and then promising it won't happen again. It was a once in a lifetime event, they say. Well, I've counted three of these "once in a lifetime" events in the past thirty years. But like little kids, they say, well, buy me a new car, a more expensive car, and I promise, this time, I won't wreck it. I say, go to your room and no dinner for you!

mike harris

"Imagine how much better we could build such a plant today. After all, when the 1906 great quake destroyed San Francisco, everyone didn’t leave the Bay Area. We took the lessons from it, and from other quakes, and we built smarter and better."

If a nuclear plant accident happened in the Bay Area, everyone WOULD have to leave the Bay Area, never to return for DECADES! Sheesh! Does Paul Whitefield even have half a brain?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_alienation

Radiation Safety

A new beginning if you want to wipe off the face of the planet and start over. The end if we are to survive as a people. There are far safer and more efficient energy sources that can be developed, though not as profitable for the companies that sell them.


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