April 17, 2014

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Nuclear power—a second look

March 24, 2011

By Steve Mount

Recent events in Japan have forced me to reevaluate a position that I have extolled in this space several times over the past years: my support for nuclear power.

The earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 left in their wake, as of this writing, over 10,000 casualties and almost 13,000 missing. The earthquake itself was the seventh largest in recorded history, but even that dubious honor may be too low considering that scientists are still poring over data.

The tsunami swept away cars, trains, and entire villages. Its effects were felt as far away as California, where it was predicted that millions of dollars in damage was done.

And right in the middle of both natural disasters are the sites of 14 of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors. The reactors at the Tokai and Ongawa sites did have issues and there were shutdowns, but the damage was relatively minor.

Some of the ten reactors at the Fukushima sites, however, were heavily damaged and are causing concern not only in Japan, but also across the world.

There is an international nuclear event scale, which tries to put nuclear accidents into some perspective, according to the effects of the incident both on-and off-site. The Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 is noted as a level 5 accident. An incident in the Soviet Union in 1957 is the only recorded level 6 accident. And the Chernobyl accident, in 1986, is the only one rated at the highest level – 7.

Where the Fukushima incident will land on this scale is unknown. Certainly it will be a level 5 incident and may already be a level 6. Everyone is hoping, and some are certain, that it will not become a level 7.

With the ongoing issues at Vermont Yankee, and the shock of a minor earthquake, centered near Montreal, coming so soon after the Japanese disaster, many are wondering if what happened there could happen here. And even if reasonable people think that it cannot, can we take the risk? Should Vermont Yankee be completely shut down?

Should any nuclear power plant built along a major fault line, like several have been in California, be allowed to operate further? Should nuclear power be allowed to continue at all?

At times like these, with disaster so fresh in the media and the consequences still rubbing raw in our minds, it is reasonable to ask these questions. But because everything is so fresh, we must not jump to hasty conclusions.

Nuclear power, until we have more viable options in terms of safety, sustainability, low-impact, and absolute power output, is the best way for us to produce the energy that we need. The safety record of U.S. nuclear power plants is very good – issues at Vermont Yankee and incidents like Three Mile Island notwithstanding. The footprint of nuclear power plants is small compared to one needed to have a reasonable wind farm. The nuclear power plant generates electricity 24 hour hours a day, regardless of wind, tides, or sunlight, and without any carbon emissions. We cannot sustain our economy as we do now without them.

This is not to say that I accept nuclear without reservation. The issue of waste is a real and pressing one. I think we could solve much of it with reasonable and common sense recycling of nuclear material, but even that will not solve the waste issue completely.
Reactors the age of those at Vermont Yankee can continue to run safely past their design parameters. But even given that, the issues Yankee has had with leaks show that even if the reactor can continue, the infrastructure supporting it may not be able to.

President Barack Obama has announced his administration’s intention to continue to fund and support nuclear power, incorporating all the latest advances into new plants that are safer and more efficient than ever. Scientists continue to look for ways to make fission reactors more and more safe, always with an eye to the Holy Grail, the fusion reactor.

We must take lessons away from the Japanese disaster, build these lessons into new designs and close or retrofit old plants where necessary. What we cannot afford to do is abandon nuclear power completely – not now, and not in the foreseeable future.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at [email protected] or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.

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