My Turn: Time to reconsider nuclear power

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2008

There is a great deal of discussion these days about the energy crisis. The time is approaching when common sense may force another look at nuclear power. It is the obvious replacement for fossil fuels and environmentally superior.

The demise of nuclear power in our country is a sad story. We had a well-developed industry with an almost unlimited source of energy, and it was destroyed by the lack of political will to face up to the anti-nuclear forces. Among other things, those opposed to nuclear power preached a fear of radiation, lack of reactor safety and dangers in transporting and storage of spent nuclear fuel elements (radioactive waste).

One of the problems with public sentiment about nuclear energy is that it was introduced in the form of a bomb with all of its accompanying death and destruction. That provided fertile ground for critics to capitalize on the public's natural fear of the unfamiliar by providing a great deal of scary treatment of radiation hazards. The constant negative drumbeat aided by a sympathetic media resulted in a deep-seated public paranoia about radiation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. We can be thankful that electricity was not introduced to the public in the form of the electric chair or we might be using candles and steam engines today.

Looking back over 40 years of working in radiation protection, I have one lasting impression. It is the public's inordinate fear of radiation regardless of the level of exposure. Concern about the harmful effects of medical and dental X-ray exams was common. It was viewed as a mysterious and deadly agent despite the history of safe, beneficial use in industry, medicine and research. In reality, we know the hazards and we know how to control and use radiation safely.

Operation of nuclear reactors is not without risk, but by any reasonable standard it has to be considered safe. Calling something "safe" does not necessarily imply "without risk." It is important to keep a proper perspective and sense of proportion with regard to risk. We accept risk every day for assumed benefits. Those opposed to nuclear reactors seem to demand that the risk be reduced to zero, but zero risk is not demanded of other sources of power which also involve risks. What is needed is an even-handed comparison with the safety record and hazards associated with the use of other major sources of energy for electrical power generation, for example coal and oil.

Opponents also focus on the worst case scenario but ignore the possibility or probability associated with such accidents ever occurring. We have actual operating experience of 100 nuclear reactors over a period of 50 years, presently producing about 15 percent of our power needs. There has never been a radiation-related fatality in commercial reactor operation in the U.S. Add to that the experience of our nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines and one has a safety record that is unequaled.

Opponents point to the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents as proof of how dangerous nuclear reactors are. The TMI accident was the most severe ever experienced by the nuclear power industry in this country, yet there were no injuries or deaths. The containment vessel performed precisely as designed with associated radiation exposure to the public being less than the background radiation difference between Denver and Juneau. Chernobyl is a different situation altogether. The Soviet Union operating experience cannot be used to judge the U.S. safety record. The reactor design used at Chernobyl which caused the accident is not used in this country for commercial power generation.

Then there is the issue of the disposal of radioactive wastes. This is a political, not a technical, problem. Presently we have storage areas scattered throughout the country at reactor sites rather than one centralized, controlled site. Deep salt dome deposits offer a good solution for a centralized site. Retrievable radioactive waste storage in the form of ceramic or glass increases control.

Rebuilding the nuclear power industry will not be without controversy. The emotion and fear about anything "nuclear" is deep-seated. However, if we want it badly enough it can be done.

• Sidney Heidersdorf is a retired radiological physicist living in Juneau. He worked 40 years in radiation safety for the state and federal government and as a consultant.

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