We’re not ready

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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.

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