We Need To Imagine The Unimaginable
NUCLEAR SAFETY: THINK THE UNTHINKABLE
Dare We Assume That It Can’t Happen Here?
Written by Martin A. Dyckman. Last updated Sunday April 10th, 2011
Editor’s Note: Florida’s Crystal River nuclear energy plant has been shut down since September, 2009 because of a cracked concrete wall that is being repaired. Nuclear officials say it is no risk to public safety.
By MARTIN DYCKMAN
It was ninety-nine years ago, on April 15, 1912, when the world should have taken to heart the lesson that "fail safe" is a fallacy. The Titanic, which sank early that morning with the loss of 1,517 lives, was said to be "virtually unsinkable."
Time and again, subsequent disasters have shown the necessity of imagining the unimaginable. System failures are inevitable. We just don’t know when or where they will occur. Cases in point: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Challenger, Deepwater Horizon. And now, the extreme crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Station.
The American nuclear power industry insists that it can’t happen here. Trust us, they say, we’ve done everything possible for safety.
Not so. They’ve done only what they think they have to do. One thing gravely left undone is to devise acceptable long-term storage for the radioactive waste piling up beside every one of America’s 104 nuclear power plants. Wherever it’s ultimately bottled or buried, it will have to be guarded for 100,000 years, more than ten times longer than the recorded history of civilization. As seen at Japan, the waste could be an even greater danger than what is in the reactors.
Nuclear accidents are not the only man-made environmental catastrophe. Coal smog kills an estimated 10,000 Americans annually. Climate change threatens vast flooding, crop failures, and famine. Nuclear power must still be considered as an alternative energy source, but not until the industry and its purported regulators become much more candid about the risks and enormous consequences of failure.
It would be an act of national insanity to license any new plants or, worse, relicense any more existing ones, until four steps are taken.
--Establish and implement permanent depositories for nuclear waste. This is as much a political problem as one for the engineers, because no one wants it in their back yard any more than the people of Nevada did.
--Assess the risks thoroughly and independently. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a paper tiger. The industry’s assurances echo those of Tokyo Power, which had claimed to be prepared for any realistic threat and now admits it wasn’t. According to the Associated Press, the company’s experts had deliberately overlooked evidence of a similar earthquake and tsunami that happened a thousand years ago. They arbitrarily based their calculations on events since 1896. Is that happening here? There are major earthquake faults in the United States too, including ones nearby in Missouri and Arkansas.
--Establish realistic contingency plans for worst-case meltdowns. Evacuation plans are typically required only for ten-mile radii. Experts quoted in the New York Times dismiss these as "fantasy documents." Some 300,000 people live nearer within 10 miles of New York’s Indian Point nuclear facility. Nearly all of New York City plus much of Connecticut and New Jersey are within fifty miles.
--Exploit every other alternative energy source, as--for example--requiring solar collectors on every public building.
It is impossible to prevent all calamities. But when the risks are as potentially catastrophic as in a nuclear accident, we dare not assume that it can’t happen here.
(Martin Dyckman began his career as a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and retired as an associate editor of that newspaper. He currently resides in North Carolina and is author of Floridian of His Century, The Courage of Governor Leroy Collins as well as A Most Disorderly Court: Scandal and Reform in the Florida Judiciary and his newest book, Reubin O’D Askew and the Golden Age of Florida Politics.)