The Price of Safety


The nuclear crisis at Japan’s radiation-leaking Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex continues—most recently leading to fears about contaminated food and water supplies in surrounding areas—and questions continue in the U.S. as to the safety—and necessity—of nuclear power here. The U.S. has not built a new nuclear plant since a partial meltdown occurred at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant in 1979, but this year President Obama announced his plans to give new nuclear projects $36 billion in loan guarantees, and the construction of four new plants are close to approval.

Pro-nuclear lawmakers support the continuation of new projects and argue that it’s too soon to criticize existing plants based on the crisis in Japan. “This discussion reminds me, somewhat, of the conversations that were going on after the BP oil spill last year. I don’t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But with 23 of the 104 reactors in the U.S. built exactly like the aging General Electric Mark 1 Fukushima plant, it’s not surprising that a Gallup poll taken after the 9.0 earthquake revealed 7 out of 10 Americans are now concerned about the possibility of a nuclear disaster. Tom Cochran, a nuclear physicist and senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) calls the General Electric design “demonstrably deficient.”

Among the 23 similarly built reactors are the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey and the Vermont Yankee plant, a 39-year-old facility the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved to continue operating for another 20 years the day before Japan’s earthquake. The approval comes with heavy opposition from nearby residents. “If this could happen in Japan, with all its technological sophistication and disaster preparedness,” said Nancy Braus of the Safe & Green Campaign, “what unexpected event might overtake the alleged safeguards we’re told are protecting Vermont Yankee?”

Also raising concern are New York’s Indian Point plant, just 24 miles north of New York City and located about a mile from where two earthquake fault lines intersect, and California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear facility, which sits on one earthquake fault and is close to three others.

President Obama announced last week that he is calling upon the NRC to undertake a “comprehensive review” of the safety of U.S. nuclear plants. “Our nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study and been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies,” he said. “But when we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event and to draw from those lessons to ensure the safety and security of our people.” According to Anthony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the inspections called upon by President Obama will go beyond regular safety checks. The inspections will verify that plant operators can safely shut down reactors in the event of a total power loss and that crucial emergency equipment is installed. “When you have an accident occur that was not likely to happen, you need to redouble your efforts to safeguard against it,” said Bob Deans, spokesman for the NRDC in Washington. “What this calls for is a reassessment of what we have regarded as safe in this country. We can’t sit back and be complacent and say ‘Well, we’re not them.’ No, we are.”

U.S. Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Lois Capps (D-CA) requested in a letter to the NRC that, by April 8, they be provided with details on whether any nuclear reactors in the U.S. can withstand a 9.0 quake. Whether nuclear energy will prove to be safe in the face of strong earthquakes and other catastrophic natural disasters is one of many issues the industry is now being forced to address. And there are other concerns: how plants might withstand a terrorist attack, and how to safely store spent radioactive fuel. A 2009 analysis by Environment America found that nuclear power will actually set America back in the race to reduce pollution and CO2 emissions. According to the study, it’s very likely that new nuclear power will make no contribution toward reducing U.S. emissions of global warming pollution by 2020, despite the investment of hundreds of billions of dollars for the construction of new nuclear plants–money that could have been invested in clean, significantly less-risky renewable energies like wind and solar. Even if the industry completed 100 new reactors by 2030, which the study noted is highly unlikely, these reactors would reduce CO2 emissions by 12%, when a reduction of more than 70% is needed.

The study goes on to note that the nuclear industry is hoping to put three new reactors up by 2016, but if we continue reducing electricity through energy-efficiency programs like the ones now active in California and New York, the energy taken away from fossil fuels will be equivalent to putting 30 new nuclear reactors up by 2016. And even the most optimistic estimates for the average cost of power from a new nuclear reactor are 300% higher than the cost of implementing energy efficiency measures, and well above the cost of wind power. And investing in energy efficiency brings homeowners the added benefit of savings on electricity bills.

Ellen Vancko, a nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, spoke in a telepress conference this past weekend. “Adding more safety features to nuclear reactors can be expected to make nuclear power more expensive,” she said. “So will improving our emergency preparedness compared with other low-carbon alternatives that do not carry the same risks. We all will have to decide, at the end of the day, once the lessons are learned, how much safety we want to pay for.”