Coming Clean about Nuclear Power
Jun 29, 2011 - scientificamerican.com
Ever since Japan’s battered Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex began emitting radiation in March, calls to abandon nuclear power have risen in the U.S. and Germany, among other countries. If only it were so simple. Nuclear contributes 20 percent of the U.S. power supply and a significant share in other developed countries. If we gave it up, what would replace it? Pollution from fossil-fueled power plants shortens the life span of as many as 30,000 Americans a year. Coal companies lop off mountaintops, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas threatens water supplies, and oil dependence undermines the nation’s energy security. Then there is the small matter of greenhouse gas emissions. Clean renewable technologies will take years to reach the scale needed to replace the power we get from splitting atoms.
Nuclear power’s benefits for climate and security are clear. But still the public worries about safety—and no wonder. The industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) claim that nuclear power is safe, but their lack of transparency does not inspire confidence. For example, an Associated Press investigation in March revealed 24 cases from December 2009 to September 2010 in which plant operators did not report equipment defects to the NRC. The industry and regulators must regain the public’s trust.
That does not necessarily mean more regulations. Plenty of safety rules have been put in place since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The trouble is that regulations are not being enforced rigorously. The NRC has to mete out stiff penalties for violations and make every action transparent to us all. It will have a chance to demonstrate its resolve when it submits its review of all 104 commercial reactors to the White House, due this month. A crucial test will be what the review says about several plants that are already on the agency’s watch list for safety issues.
Evacuation plans are a sore point for many citizens. The agency advised Americans in Japan to stay 50 miles away from Fukushima, yet within the U.S. the emergency evacuation radius is only 10 miles. What is the proper limit? Are evacuation plans subjected to serious tests? If exercises showed that residents around a plant could not leave quickly enough, the NRC should consider shutting it down. A good test case is the Indian Point plant 38 miles north of New York City. Evacuating the 20 million people who live within 50 miles staggers belief. To its credit, the NRC will work with New York governor Andrew Cuomo to review the plant’s safety ahead of the scheduled relicensing review in 2013.
The NRC must also be scrupulous about licensing new plants. If an operator proposes a site that is too close to an earthquake fault, or too close to oceanfront that is vulnerable to a tsunami or hurricane storm surge, or downriver from a huge dam that could burst, then the NRC should reject the bid. Similarly, if the utility could not protect spent fuel pools or casks from being breached during a severe accident, which happened in Japan, the NRC should not license it. Saying no to a suspect plant would do more than anything else to restore public confidence.
The industry argues that advanced technology will ensure safety. The 22 new reactors proposed in the U.S. use so-called Gen III+ designs that are safer than today’s reactors, which date to the 1970s or earlier. Building them could displace new coal plants or relieve the pressure to extend the life of old reactors that should instead be retired. Yet, as the article “Planning for the Black Swan,” by Adam Piore, on page 48 notes, the new plants may have weaknesses. Manufacturers should pursue even safer, meltdown-proof designs that they have experimented with but shelved, such as liquid fluoride thorium reactors and pebble bed reactors. China is developing both. In the end, however, no technology is 100 percent safe, and better designs cannot eliminate the need for careful siting and emergency planning.
Americans need clarity from the federal government, too. Reactors across the country have accumulated 72,000 tons of spent fuel. Some utilities have packed four times as many spent fuel rods into temporary holding pools than the structures were designed to contain. The government poured $9 billion and decades of effort into the planned permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, with little to show for it. Then President Barack Obama scuttled the project. The waste continues to pile up. At some point, officials will have to face down the citizen refrain of “not in my backyard.”
Nuclear power has a good safety record, but when it fails it can fail catastrophically. Now is the time to make tough, transparent decisions that could regain public trust. Otherwise, the public might make the ultimate call: “no more nukes.”