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After Japan, U.S. nuclear plants need a hard look

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 15, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
March 15, 2011 5:33 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

This is not a good week to be the nuclear industry.

Multiple nuclear power plants have exploded and leaked radiation in Japan in a horror show that matches some Hollywood disaster movies.

The visceral fear of radioactivity is such that the spectacle of burning reactor complexes has sometimes overshadowed the vastly greater devastation and loss of life wrought directly by Friday’s earthquake and tsunami.

Many Americans are now understandably nervous about this country’s 104 nuclear plants – including the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford, which is very similar in design to the stricken Japanese reactors.

The crisis is good reason to step back and look at the way America is re-licensing its oldest reactors, some of which have been operating for 40 years. It’s not a good reason to fly into a panic about nuclear energy in general.

Viewed objectively, nuclear plant radiation poses a far smaller public risk than the emissions of coal-burning power plants, which routinely cause hundreds of deaths from respiratory and other diseases.

Generating power on a large scale is inherently risky. The hazards of nuclear power are now on scary display, but coal, oil and natural gas are considerably more dangerous, given that nuclear plants produce no particulates, no greenhouse gases, no pipeline explosions and no Gulf oil spills.

There are safer options than any of the above, including hydro, solar and wind power. Hydro is largely tapped out, though, and solar and wind remain far from the scale and economies needed to deliver abundant electricity at relatively low cost.

Even if we could somehow switch over to renewable power sources overnight, their far higher costs would wreak economic havoc. The poor, as always, would suffer the most.

The future may be green power, but the present must include nuclear as a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels.

Still, the Japanese disaster carries a huge cautionary lesson for the nuclear industry and its regulators.

Those crashed reactors are “Generation II” commercial plants. They feature many redundant safety mechanisms, but share the same Achilles’ heel: The need for a constant supply of water in large volumes to keep their fuel assemblies cool – which in turns requires a constant supply of power to keep the water flowing.

The power goes off, and you get the Japanese disaster movie.

Generation III reactors – the kind now being built – are designed to stay cooler on their own if power is lost. But the plants now operating in the United States are Generation II.

Industry leaders assure us that each is safe and each has been vetted every which way for every possible natural disaster. Their Japanese counterparts – who are just as technologically savvy – were undoubtedly thinking the same thing up to last Friday.

What happened in Japan was worse than worst case. Do all U.S. reactors really meet tougher standards than Japanese reactors? Can they all handle stresses exceeding any anticipated cataclysm?

The industry would like us to think so. “Trust but verify” comes to mind.

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