We’re not ready
We were told by oil industry executives and their acolytes and enablers in government that deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico would not cause the kind of catastrophe that we’ve been watching with an acute and painful sense of helplessness for the past three months. Advances in technology, they said, would ward off the worst-case scenarios. Fail-safe systems like the blowout preventer a mile below the surface at the Deepwater Horizon rig site would keep wildlife and the environment safe.
Americans are not particularly good at learning even the most painful lessons. Denial is our default mode. But at the very least this tragedy in the Gulf should push us to look much harder at the systems we need to prevent a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant, and for responding to such an event if it occurred. Right now, we’re not ready. Nuclear plants are the new hot energy item. The Obama administration is offering federal loan guarantees to encourage construction of a handful of plants in the U.S., the first in decades. Not to be outdone, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a certifiable nuke zealot, would like to see 100 new plants built over the next 20 years.
There is no way to overstate how cautiously we need to proceed along this treacherous road. Building nuclear power plants is mindbogglingly expensive, which is why you need taxpayer money to kick-start the process. But the overriding issues we need to be concerned about, especially in light of our horrendous experience with the oil gushing in the gulf for so long, are safety and security.
We have to be concerned about the very real possibility of a worst-case scenario erupting at one of the many aging nuclear plants already operating (in some cases with safety records that would make your hair stand on end), and at any of the new ones that so many people are calling for.
The problem is that while the most terrible accidents are blessedly rare, when they do occur the consequences are horrific, as we’ve seen in the gulf. With nuclear plants, the worst-case scenarios are too horrible for most people to want to imagine. Denial takes over with policymakers and the public alike. Something approaching a worst-case accident at a nuclear plant, especially one in a highly populated area, would make the Deepwater Horizon disaster look like a walk in the park.
“We are way, way behind when it comes to the hard work of preventing accidents and responding to these catastrophes when they happen,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “With the deep-water oil drilling, we allowed the technological advances to drive the process at a rate that was unsafe, and we got really badly burned. The potential of a nuclear catastrophe is a major disaster in waiting.”
There are already plenty of problems on the nuclear power front, but they don’t get a great deal of media attention. David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me last week that there have been 47 instances since 1979 in which nuclear reactors in the United States have had to be shut down for more than a year for safety reasons.
“We estimated, in 2005 dollars, that the average price tag for these outages was between $1.5 billion and $2 billion,” Lochbaum said.
People of a certain age will remember the frightening accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, a partial meltdown that came dangerously close to a worst-case scenario. As Lochbaum put it, “In roughly two hours, conditions at the plant rendered it from a billion-dollar asset to a multibillion-dollar liability. It cost more to clean up than it cost to build it.”
Another frightening accident occurred in 2002 at the Davis-Besse plant at Oak Harbor, Ohio. A hidden leak led to corrosion that caused a near-catastrophe. By the time the problem was discovered, only a thin layer of stainless steel was left to hold back the disaster.
The potential problems with nuclear power abound. No one knows what to do with the dangerous nuclear waste that is building up at the plants. And no one wants to have an extended conversation in polite company about the threat of terrorists who could wreak all manner of mayhem with an attack on a plant.
For many very serious people, our overreliance on foreign oil and the potential dire consequences of global warming make the case for moving more toward nuclear energy a compelling one. But if this is done without a whole lot more serious thought given to matters of safety and rigorous oversight, it’s a step we’ll undoubtedly come to regret.