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February 22, 2012

Class Reports
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The nuclear road not taken

by Christopher Marian Feb 22, 2012 7:07 pm Tags: energy, Japan, nuclear, policies, Power Plant, Tsunami, US

Chris Marian is a Spartan Daily copy editor.

Nuclear power has been in the news a lot these days — from the recent cascade failures at the Fukushima I nuclear plant in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake to Iran’s infamously not-so-civil nuclear program.

One bit of nuclear news from the last few weeks that’s probably gone under the radar comes from right here in the U.S.

The federal government has just issued a construction license for a pair of new nuclear reactors at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia.

It’s the first time the federal government has issued a license for a new reactor since the incident at Three Mile Island back in 1979.

I take a fairly positive view of nuclear power, so one might think I see the news of the new reactors in Georgia as a good thing.

I don’t.

I’ve always believed that a robust system of commercial nuclear reactors, used in combination with renewable systems, can be a viable solution to a large chunk of our nation’s energy demands — but it’s not something that should ever be done half-assed.

That’s exactly what the Vogtle plant says about the U.S. nuclear infrastructure: half-assed.

One new reactor project in 30 years. 30 years!

Let me first explain why I like nuclear power by addressing the issues that are often raised against them.

First the big one — environmental impact.

From an engineering standpoint, this has been the most intractable issue with nuclear power and it's certainly what the granola-munching crowd likes to wail about the most.

Dealing with spent fuel has always been a tricky business, but there are technologies in development for reprocessing the used fuel.

Even in the short term, with the prospect of simply piling the stuff under a mountain in Nevada, I think it’s best to take a more big-picture look at the environmental impact of nuclear power.

Nuclear reactors are zero-emission — that white stuff you see coming out those iconic pot-shaped cooling towers is boiled river-water.


Given a choice between a toxic bunker in Nevada and the zillions of tons of crap we’ve already poured into our atmosphere over the last half-century alone, I’ll have the bunker, please.

Now for the really scary one — safety.

I’ve always thought that nuclear power is as safe as you have the will to make it.

Before the Tohoku disaster in Japan in 2011, and the subsequent incidents at the Fukushima plant, the best known nuclear disasters in the world were the Chernobyl meltdown and explosion in the Ukraine in 1986, and the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania.

The Chernobyl disaster was the result of flawed engineering, sloppy management and a tyrannical bureaucracy that cared nothing for safety and had no room for professional oversight.

Contaminated smoke from the burning plant killed dozens, forced the evacuation of nearby communities and spread lesser amounts of contamination across Eastern Europe and Russia.

Rewind to 1979 — cascading mechanical failures at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania triggered a partial meltdown in one of the plant’s two cores and the accidental venting of a small amount of radioactive gas into the environment.

Health experts have thus far been unable to verify any negative impact on the surrounding population and ecosystem.

The Three Mile Island plant used a radically different type of reactor than the Chernobyl plant and had a number of common sense safety systems that the Soviet plant lacked — so that even when there were multiple failures, what could have been an ecological disaster instead ended up just being an expensive and embarrassing industrial accident.

So what about Fukushima?

One has to remember that the meltdowns at the Fukushima I plant didn’t happen in isolation.

The plant was hit by a tsunami.

It could be reasonably argued that the plant was poorly sited, that its backup systems were too vulnerable to flooding, and that the Japanese government was unprepared to respond to a nuclear emergency.

I, however, tend to look at the Fukushima incidents as part of the larger narrative of the 2011 Tohoku disaster — about a nation dealing with a peculiarly dangerous geography and an overestimation of its own disaster-preparedness.

In the context of the U.S., I think nuclear power can be made at least as safe and reliable as fossil fuel systems.

Making potential U.S. plants safe and clean is, at its core, an engineering problem, but the final strike against the American nuclear industry and the one that really killed it back in ’79, is not: public hysteria.

This one factor, more than any other, is responsible for the decrepitude of the U.S. nuclear industry.

Our nuclear plants are no more safe, clean or efficient than they were 30 years ago, because we haven’t built any since.

Nuclear engineering has evolved in the 30 years since Three Mile Island turned us into a nation of nuclear hysterics — but all that progress is for naught in the face of a public that can’t look the bogeyman in the eye.

It’s the same lack of will that has hampered every other decision this country has had to make about our energy and environmental policies.

Half-assed in — half-assed out.

I hope solar does better — oh, wait, it didn’t.

An alternative view on US nuclear power policies.
An alternative view on US nuclear power policies.

@TedrTed ·

Since World War II, “the war to end all wars,” the explosive power of the combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia has grown to the equivalent of 300,000 Hiroshima’s. The 8,500 warheads and bombs in the US arsenal alone have a combined explosive power of more than 3 billion tons of TNT – about 1,500 pounds of explosive for every man, woman and child on this planet.

US Senator George McGovrn wrote: “Even the smallest of today’s strategic nuclear weapons has several times the yield of the Hiroshima bomb. If one were to explode at midday in Manhattan, the shock wave would kill 5,000,000 unprotected people within 4 or 5 miles and would demolish buildings almost as far away as the Connecticut border. And that would be just the beginning of the end: only 20 percent of the fatalities at Hiroshima were caused by the blast."
“Ted Rudow III, MA
Class of 1996

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