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Rigid nuclear safety standards are needed before nuclear power is expanded

Posted: April 14, 2011 - 11:03pm

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The tragic earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March took thousands of lives and also disabled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, leaving it without electrical power to run its cooling system. Massive releases of radiation followed, forcing evacuation of the local population.

Most of the radioactive particles drifted out to sea. Yet the worst nuclear plant disaster since Chernobyl has sparked renewed debate over how much the United States and other nations should rely on nuclear power.

The Japanese accident was a stark reminder of the serious risks to public health and the environment if nuclear power plants are not built and operated with robust safety systems. In this case, the tsunami destroyed poorly placed backup generators.

Given the damage from this accident, should the United States continue operating its own nuclear plants or begin to phase out some of them? Should we permit new ones to be built, and if so should they be on a fast track with relaxed regulatory procedures that Republicans favor and the federal loan guarantees that the Obama administration endorses? The United States and other nations have relied primarily on fossil fuels to meet energy needs, but concern about release of greenhouse gases and air pollution from coal-fired plants has increased interest in alternative sources, including nuclear power.

Wind power, solar energy and biofuels offer great promise. In the short term, however, they cannot replace fossil fuels or the 20 percent of electricity that comes from nuclear plants.

Despite its many advantages, however, nuclear power faces important barriers. The plants are extremely expensive to build at up to $10 billion each _ and costs may rise if new safety requirements are imposed.

Hence the demand from utilities that government provide generous loan guarantees to ensure that banks will loan them the money. But is this fair? Should taxpayers be put at risk for the cost of plant construction? And why should nuclear power receive such extravagant subsidies when newer energy technologies do not?

Nuclear power plants also produce large quantities of highly radioactive wastes. In fact, it was the spent fuel rods at the Fukushima plant that were the biggest source of released radiation. With Yucca Mountain no longer under consideration as a waste repository, the U.S. now has no plan for dealing with the wastes. We need to fix this.

So what should we do? For starters, we need the kind of national dialogue over energy policy that the Obama administration and Congress started in 2010 but which failed to gain traction even in the face of BP’s calamitous oil spill.

We should try again to debate the nation’s energy future, and this should include a thorough evaluation of all major energy sources as well as a commitment to invest in the most promising new technologies. President Barack Obama has strongly favored such investments, but most congressional Republicans have opposed them. Bipartisan cooperation is essential to go forward.

Nuclear power clearly has a place in the mix of U.S. and global energy sources now and in the future. But as this latest accident makes crystal clear, too often safety systems have been found wanting, and the results can be horrific.

Few communities will welcome any new plants without the most demanding standards and continuous review of operating procedures and evacuation plans. Safety has to be a top priority if nuclear power is to have any future, and any fast tracking of new plants can undermine that goal.

• Michael E. Kraft is the Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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