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A hot mess of nuclear energy

<e at Carleton we live less than 30 miles away from Prairie Island, one of 52 nuclear power plants in the U.S. In fact, 40% of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, putting them at risk in the event of a nuclear disaster. Given the high percentage of people living close to nuclear reactors, and the tremendous consequences if anything should go wrong, the nuclear industry must be tightly regulated, or so one would think.

Once you begin looking into the regulation of nuclear power, you realize that we, as a country, are a lot less careful than we ought to be. Although it is the job of the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) to ensure the safety of the nuclear industry, the NRC routinely skips steps or fails to follow through when problems are detected. There are many, many examples of this lax attitude.

Just this past Sunday, the Palisades nuclear power plant in Michigan was taken offline when operators discovered that a water tank was leaking radioactive water into Lake Michigan. This same water tank leaked less than a year ago. At that time, the chairman of the NRC was Gregory B. Jaczko, and he ordered an investigation into the incident. The Commissioner of the NRC, William Ostendorff, attempted to thwart the investigation, saying that it was a waste of money, but was unsuccessful.

Jaczko has since stepped down from his position as chairman of the NRC, and had this to say about nuclear reactors last month, as quoted in the New York Times:

‘“I was just thinking about the issues more, and watching as the industry and the regulators and the whole nuclear safety community continues to try to figure out how to address these very, very difficult problems,” which were made more evident by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan. “Continuing to put Band-Aid on Band-Aid is not going to fix the problem.”’

The problem at the Palisades plant is just one example of many where a “Band-Aid” solution seems to have failed. Jaczko believes, that to really make reactors in the U.S. safe, all reactors should be replaced with smaller versions that produce less radioactive waste.

Nuclear power generation produces waste, called spent fuel, which is both radioactive and very hot. This is one of the biggest drawbacks to nuclear energy, because we have not figured out what to do with spent fuel. Currently, it is stored at the reactor where it is created, which is both dangerous and unsustainable.

But before spent fuel can be stored in ‘dry casks’ as they are called, it must be cooled in pools of water. The accident at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 was an example of what happens if spent fuel is not kept cool enough: meltdown.
The smaller reactors that Jaczko suggests would produce less spent fuel so if the cooling system failed, it would take longer for the fuel to get hot enough to damage the storage canisters. In other words, a meltdown would be much less likely.

But in the nuclear industry, ‘easier said than done’ is an understatement. Most changes are incredibly slow, if they happen at all. For example, rather than building new reactors to meet demand, the industry refits current reactors to produce more energy and renew operating licenses even though, according to Jaczko, they probably won’t last that long. It is too expensive to design an emergency evacuation plan that is tailored to each facility, so FEMA just uses a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It is too difficult to figure out what to do with spent fuel of nuclear power, so we just store all the radioactive material at the facility, as we continue to make more.

As part of Obama’s multipronged approach to meeting energy needs, the Department of Energy (DOE) is working on a plan to build as many as 50 small reactors, that would be used in the U.S. and sold abroad. The most cited advantage of smaller reactors is their economic efficiency. They require fewer upfront costs, and so might be more profitable, although not everyone agrees that this is the case. The availability of cheap natural gas in the U.S. energy market has significantly lowered the price of energy, making nuclear less competitive.

The Obama administration also continues to support large nuclear reactors, announcing in February a decision to build two new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia. These are the first nuclear reactors to be built in the United States since the nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979. If we are going to pursue nuclear as a safe alternative to fossil fuels, regulation needs to be seriously tightened.

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