Lack of Enforcement is the Real Problem With Nuclear Power

Nuclear power

Most of the world’s most controversial subjects tend to polarize people’s opinions: people not only disagree about the subject, but do so by being either completely for or against the subject. Generating electricity from nuclear power is one of these subjects.

Too bad, because it’s people’s polarization itself that prevents a solution. Yes, nuclear power is environmentally clean and therefore nuclear power should be used. Yes, nuclear accidents will happen and therefore nuclear power shouldn’t be used. However, the reality of the subject isn’t at all that polar.

Among the people who know that is the board of editors of Scientific American magazine. They include people who not only understand both sides of the issues, but realize that the ultimate problem about nuclear power generation isn’t nuclear power but the cases of duplicity, corruption, and incompetence about it. Here is their editorial about it, which appeared in the June issue of their magazine. I applauded the editorial when I first read it earlier this summer:

 “…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….

“…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 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….

“…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….

“…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 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…. 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….

“…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.”


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