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A Nuclear-Sized Debate Begins to Percolate

Mar 30, 2011

Why hasn't the massive amount of death and destruction caused by Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and now Japan's earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility blown the nuclear power industry into obsolescence? Are the green benefits of nuclear power really worth it when tens of thousands - and in some cases millions - of lives are in a perpetual state of risk? It's a simple question that has been debated for decades and one that probably won't have a definitive answer for many more decades.

In an effort to properly frame the dangers of nuclear power, one needs to look no further than recent news headlines.  Trace amounts of radiation from the damaged nuclear-power facilities in Japan have been detected on U.S. shores. According to The Wall Street Journal Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Nevada and other Western states are among the states that have reported minuscule amounts of radiation. Here's more from the Journal article:

Health officials said Sunday that one sample of Massachusetts rainwater registered very low concentrations of radiation, most likely from the Japanese nuclear-power plant damaged earlier this month by an earthquake and tsunami. John Auerbach, the Massachusetts commissioner of public health, said that iodine-131 found in the sample-one of more than 100 that have been taken around the country-is short lived. He said the drinking-water supply in the state was unaffected and officials do not expect any health concerns.

Thankfully, it doesn't look like the threat of radiation is a serious one to the U.S. But the thought of radiation from Japan reaching the U.S. isn't exactly a warming one and only dredges up safety concerns that have the dogged the nuclear power industry since its inception. The concerns are obviously valid. As of this writing, radioactive water in tunnels under the Japanese nuclear plant could be spilling into soil and the ocean according to the Los Angeles Times. In addition, the buildup of highly radioactive water is hampering efforts to restore power to the facility. Traces of plutonium, which is highly carcinogenic, have been detected outside one of the reactors. Here's more from The Los Angeles Times:

 To keep the core of the reactors cool, they have to continue spraying water. If the core isn't kept cool the reactors could be damaged," Koji Okamoto, a Tokyo University professor who specializes in nuclear plant design, told public broadcaster NHK. "And if that happens, there's a possibility that a huge amount of radioactive gas will be released into the air." But if too much water is sprayed, he said, " the water could leak out. It's an extremely tough situation."

As dire as the situation is in Japan, it isn't preventing Finland from marching forward on completing the construction of a cutting-edge nuclear facility. To be fair, it does appear that this new reactor could have what it takes to withstand, well, pretty much anything. Here's more from The Huffington Post:

The the 1,600-megawatt European Pressurized Reactor projected set to  come online in 2013 in Olkiluoto, 195 miles (315 kilometers) northwest of Helsinki, is the first of its kind expected to begin operating after the Japanese disaster. It has walls thick enough to withstand an airplane crash, components designed to tolerate the extreme cold of the Nordic winter, and decades worth of new safety systems.

"(We have) so many backup systems that the kind of accident like in Japan could not happen," said project manager Jouni Silvennoinen.

Wishful thinking? Or a way forward for nuclear power? Sound off below.