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Despite Fires and Floods, The U.S.’s Big Nuclear Power Plans Continue

U.S. nukes are safe! As they can be… We keep being told. While the rest of the world continues to distance itself, what’s the future of Obama’s push for more atomic power?

nuclear power plant

While the U.S. debates the future of nuclear power, Mother Nature keeps sending gentle reminders last week of the risks. Floodwaters from the Missouri River breeched a damaged berm around Nebraska’s Fort Calhoun reactor
over the weekend, inundating the site under several feet of water.
Fortunately, the containment buildings are built to withstand waters at
least eight feet higher, according to the Wall Street Journal, and the
Iowa Independent reports the situation “looks worse that it is.” Meanwhile, at Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb and home to 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste, wildfires are still raging.

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Yet the probability of a nuclear disaster on U.S. soil similar to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown is “very, very small,” said Gregory B. Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), to the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee last week. Federal regulators insist U.S. nuclear power plants are operating safely, and the NRC is moving ahead with 12 applications for new nuclear power plans and five different reactor designs.

“At this time the agency considers that the existing emergency preparedness framework and regulations provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection of public health and safety in the event of a radiological  emergency at a U.S. power reactor facility,” Jaczko submitted in written testimony (PDF) to Congress on June 16.

Strong words. While NRC’s jargon-laden communiques shed little light on the matter, the agency did say that America’s 104 operating nuclear power plants are being inspected to deal with power loss or damage that might follow an “extreme” event. The full report of lessons learned from the Fukushima incident will arrive on July 19. For now, the world’s other 336 other radioactive reactors are also being pushed by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to launch a series of national safety tests backed by international inspections.

Given the jitters around nuclear power, there is a resurgence of interest among former nuclear advocates to accelerate the shift toward renewables. Nuclear engineer Cesare Silvi, formerly of the Italian Commission on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Sources, told the magazine Miller-McCune that “[if we] continue with nuclear power, there will definitely be worse accidents.” Engineers like Silvi believe nuclear power is a hard sell once the risks and the cost of protecting ourselves against them are considered (he’s pushing solar).

Silvi’s fellow Italians, in fact, voted in June to reject nuclear power in Italy following the lead of the Germans who will phase out their own nuclear energy sector by 2022. A recent report by the Heinrich Böll Foundation even calls into question whether nuclear can co-exist harmoniously with alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. The clean energy think tank figures nuclear energy crowds out investment in renewables, and creates a rigid, centralized power system when a distributed, smart-grid is needed instead.

America generates about 20% of its power from an aging fleet of nukes dating back to 1969 (the youngest was built in 1996). While Europeans see no safety margin for the risk of catastrophic and virtually permanent radioactive contamination, the U.S. is emphasizing safety. A new bill before Congress, the Nuclear Power 2021 Act, promises to “develop and demonstrate two small modular nuclear reactor designs” ostensibly as safe or safer than their predecessors. The Union of Concerned Scientists (which seems to grudgingly accept nuclear power as one of our few alternatives to severe climate change) remains skeptical, saying the bill needs “more stringent and specific safety criteria” to be effective. But as long as U.S. nuclear power keeps weathering the floods and fires, it will most likely weather the geopolitical storm around it as well.

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)

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