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One Year After Fukushima, the U.S. Announces a New Nuclear Plant. Is this a Good Idea?

Feb 22, 2012

In March 2011, following a major earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a nuclear reactor called Fukushima Daiichi experienced a major meltdown. Equipment failures were rampant, and the release of radioactive materials resulted. Three of the plant's six reactors melted down, causing hydrogen explosions and forcing thousands of residents of Tokyo to flee. Japan's government graded the disaster a 7, the highest possible mark, on the International Nuclear Event Scale, and we may not know for decades how the leaked radiation will affect the workers at the plant, or the citizens of Tokyo who lived nearby.

In short, it was an unmitigated disaster for nuclear power advocates, who for more than three decades following the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 have tried to reassure the public that nuclear power was safe.

So, with Fukushima still fresh in everyone's minds, it may have come as a surprise to some to see all the headlines coming from the U.S. Dept. of Energy in the last few weeks. To celebrate and commemorate the opening of America's first new nuclear reactor in three decades, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visited the brand-new Vogtle nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Ga., on Feb. 13, and sounded positively ebullient about the future of nuclear power and nuclear reactors.

The new reactors at the Waynesboro site are estimated to cost Southern Company (the principal owners of the existing plant) and its partners $14 billion, and enter service as soon as 2016 and 2017.

"Just over 60 years ago, scientists in Arco, Idaho successfully used nuclear energy to power four light bulbs," Chu said. "They laid the groundwork for decades of clean electricity and put the U.S. at the forefront of the nuclear industry.  The workers here are building on that tradition, promoting peaceful nuclear power that can boost our economy, cut carbon pollution and help meet energy demand."

Chu went on to discuss the fact that nuclear energy is a "critical part" of President Barack Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy, and he even referenced the Fukushima Daiichi accident in discussing the new reactor in Georgia, and other new facilities like it.

"The Fukushima disaster reminds us that nuclear safety and security require continued vigilance, and we are committed to harnessing nuclear energy -- and all our energy resources -- in a safe and responsible matter."

(This is an artist's rendering of what the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Ga. will look like when two new nuclear reactors are added {in the foreground}. The reactors are expected to be up and running in 2016 and 2017. Photo credit:

Sitting in his office in suburban Washington, D.C., Paul Gunter had a slightly different reaction to Chu's confidence in nuclear power. Gunter is the Director of Research at Beyond Nuclear, which for decades has been a leading voice in the anti-nuclear power movement.

"There's nothing safe about this at all," Gunter said. "From a financial standpoint, and certainly from a nuclear standpoint, the same problems that basically ended the industry in 1978 are still there. In fact, they're amplified."

To get a different point of view in light of the Dept. of Energy's boosterism about nuclear reactors and nuclear energy, I spoke with Gunter and other anti-nuclear experts to see if their concerns had been magnified since Fukushima, and why, specifically, they disagreed with Chu's assessment that the new reactors were safe.

First, Gunter talked about the financial effect expensive reactors had on the economy, and the taxpayers.

"This is really a high-wire act they're doing here," Gunter said. "Nuclear power has always been a spectacle, financially, with cost overruns and failure to meet time to completion estimates. Now we have Southern Company (the owner of the new plant in Georgia) walking out on this wire, after a 30-year hiatus, and nothing has really changed."

Jim Riccio, a nuclear power analyst at Greenpeace USA, agreed that financially, building nuclear reactors made no sense.

"Should Americans be celebrating a new reactor opening? Absolutely not," Riccio said. "The American taxpayer is now getting put on the hook for billions of dollars, and anytime they tell you a number (of what the reactor will cost), you can double it, because that's what usually happens."

"And really, it's not just the environmentalists who don't want nuclear power," Riccio continued, "it's Wall Street, too. Moody's (credit rating agency) said in 2010 that building a nuclear plant was a 'bet the farm risk.'"

Moving on from the financial costs of a reactor (and the cost of a cleanup should a spill occur, which of course could be astronomical), Gunter and Riccio next addressed the idea that nuclear power and nuclear energy are good bets for the future.

"One of the big issues seems to be that we need nuclear power because of climate change, and nuclear energy represents a low-carbon energy source," Gunter said. "But climate change has to be addressed with a global solution."

"Uranium is a finite fuel source; it doesn't represent a long-term solution to the climate crisis. And in all aspects of the uranium fuel chain," according to Riccio, "it neither presents a sound mitigation for climate change and carbon reduction, and at the same time it presents problems with causing pollution to the uranium fuel cycle."

Added Riccio: "What we're learning is that there are more reactors in the world being shut down than there are being approved. If you go to the flow chart on the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission)  home page , you'll see that this is hardly a renaissance going on."

Beyond the economic and environmental concerns about the plant, of course, the major issue anti-nuclear advocates have is a safety issue. This is something Chu addressed, talking during his visit about how Vogtle is a "passively safe" reactor. What does that mean?

"Passively safe" technically means that a reactor, in case of a major accident, will safely shut down and cool itself without the need of an "engineered system" to work. In other words, emergency cooling pumps, emergency shutdown control rods, anything like that that's supposed to work in case of an emergency, doesn't require a person to engineer the shutdown; it should just "work" when the emergency occurs.

But Gunter believes that "passively safe" is a misnomer, and even cited terrorist attacks as an example of what could happen.

"They're building a reservoir for the emergency-core cooling system, and they're using gravity to operate the system, rather than pumps and motors," Gunter said. "The gravity feed comes from a reservoir that is perched on top of the reactor containment building. The weight of the reservoir, and the water, poses a concern in terms of the engineering."

"Now," Gunter continued, "the reservoir sits on top of the reactor. We have no confidence that it could withstand a plane impact from a terrorist attack, like 9/11 and the World Trade Center. If a plane loaded with explosives was slammed into it, we have no way to know if it could withstand that.

"They're incorporating a 'passive' system that puts blinders on a broader set of risks that comes with nuclear power," Gunter said.

Riccio pointed out similar dangers, and added that because this reactor was originally approved through plans developed during the George W. Bush administration, he's not even sure how supportive Secretary Chu really is.

"I obviously don't know if he's gone from cheerleading to damage control; he may be a true believer in nuclear, but I can't tell," Riccio said. "I think clearly, though, the American public looks at what happened in Fukushima and is incredulous that we're opening up new reactors here in the United States.

"There are design flaws that haven't been fixed from the old way of building reactors, and now we're building new ones," Riccio continued. "Incredible."

We won't know for a long time whether Gunter and Riccio are right in their concerns, or whether the DOE and Southern Company really do believe this new reactor will be safer, and nearly immune from an accident.

It's an interesting, heated (no pun intended) debate that deserves to continue we learn increasingly more.