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Risky business 4/4/11

Stephen Tuttle - April 4th, 2011
Risky Business
There are three reasons Americans are skittish about nuclear power – Three
Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now, Fukushima Daiichi.
For many people, no additional evidence is required.
We got our first taste of this 32 years ago when the Three Mile Island
plant in Pennsylvania had a partial meltdown. That one was caused by a
minor mechanical glitch followed quickly by a series of human errors.
Water needed to cool the super-heated fuel rods slowly drained, exposing
the fuel which became so hot it began to melt. Radiation was released into
the air and 40,000 gallons of radiated water poured into the Susquehanna
River. As bad as that was, the catastrophe that could have happened was
prevented by good luck and the heroic efforts of plant workers who managed
to stop the chain reaction before it got even worse.
The Three Mile Island operators then established the template for
miscommunicating with the public during a crisis at a nuclear power plant
– deny there’s a problem, then tell everyone there is a problem but it’s
just an itsy-bitsy one, and then, finally, admit something really ugly has
happened and, though you’re trying, you’re not sure how to fix it.
Next up came Chernobyl in the old Soviet Union. The Soviets decided they
didn’t need no stinking containment buildings at their power plants so
when all hell broke loose during a fire at Chernobyl there was absolutely
nothing to protect the surrounding population. Twenty-five years later the
death toll is still mounting and the area around Chernobyl will be a dead
zone for the foreseeable future and beyond.
Now we have Fukushima Daiichi in Japan.
The Japanese have among the most stringent safety rules in the world for
their plants. Unfortunately, all their planning ignored the most obvious
risks. They built more than one of them on or very near active earthquake
fault lines and on a shoreline exposed to tsunamis. (We’ve made the same
mistake with nuclear power plants in California.) It turned out a 9.0
magnitude earthquake followed by a 25-foot tsunami was quite a bit more
than their plant could withstand.
Misleading the public is a lot easier than it might sound when it comes to
nuclear power plants since almost none of us understands how these things
work, how they break or how to fix them once they’re damaged.
The Japanese operators, Tokyo Electric Power Company, have been faithfully
following the script first developed at Three Mile Island – lie,
understate and obfuscate as the nightmarish cascade of problems without
solutions continues unabated.
Inevitably, the truth begins to leak out, along with the radiation, a few
days after the accident. So it is in Japan. Yes, they admit, some
radioactive steam was released but there’s nothing to worry about. Yes,
there’s some radioactivity in the surrounding soil, the surrounding
seawater, in vegetables and milk and drinking water. And, true enough,
radiation levels in water now being used to cool the fuel rods is many
times what is considered safe but, trust us, there’s nothing to worry
about.
Of course, we know there is plenty to worry about. Exposure to not very
large levels of this invisible, tasteless, odorless menace puts you at
serious risk for a very long time. Inhaling or ingesting even small
amounts is worse.
Then there’s the waste product. Spent fuel rods continue to emit deadly
radiation for at least tens of thousands of years and some experts claim
it is hundreds of thousands of years. There is no way for anyone to know
how to keep this stuff securely locked away for a century much less for
hundreds of centuries.
We thought we had a solution to the problem when work began at Yucca
Mountain, Nevada. The idea was to burrow gigantic storage areas deep
inside and under Yucca Mountain, part of a desolate and uninhabited chunk
of high desert. But opponents have pointed out we can’t even accurately
predict that Yucca Mountain will still be geologically sound and safely
containing all that nuclear waste in 100,000 years.
Meanwhile, the United States currently has about 65,000 tons of nuclear
waste scattered in various locations, not much less than the originally
intended capacity at Yucca Mountain. Removing and transporting the fuel
rods from their far-flung reactors is also a little tricky as many
communities and some entire states have decided they don’t want truckloads
or rail car loads of the stuff rumbling through their backyards.
Nuclear power has zero carbon emissions. It produces clean, consistent
power and is not dependent on the whims of the dictators in oil-rich
countries nor the vagaries of the international oil markets. Some see it
as the solution to our energy needs despite the monumental cost associated
with constructing new plants. The industry has a reasonable safety record
with serious accidents few and far between.
Unfortunately, just a single accident can have catastrophic consequences
capable of spanning the globe and lasting for decades.
When it comes to nuclear power plants we have a trust issue. We don’t
believe anyone knows how, or can afford, to build these things in a way
that guarantees they won’t break. And once they break, or something breaks
them, we seem to have no clue how to safely get them back under control.
Even worse, no one has yet come up with a way to safely dispose of the
deadly spent fuel and keep it safe for thousands of years.
Nuclear power is completely safe until something goes wrong. Or until we
have to dispose of the waste. Then it becomes risky business for all of
us.


 
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