NEW YORK TIMES
July 19, 2010
We’re Not Ready
By BOB HERBERT
Americans are not particularly good at learning even the most painful lessons. Denial is our default mode. But at the very least this tragedy in the gulf should push us to look much harder at the systems we need to prevent a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant, and for responding to such an event if it occurred.
Right now, we’re not ready.
Nuclear plants are the new hot energy item. The Obama administration is offering federal loan guarantees to encourage the construction of a handful of new plants in the
There is no way to overstate how cautiously we need to proceed along this treacherous road. Building nuclear power plants is mind-bogglingly expensive, which is why you need taxpayer money to kick-start the process. But the overriding issues we need to be concerned about, especially in light of our horrendous experience with the oil gushing in the gulf for so long, are safety and security.
We have to be concerned about the very real possibility of a worst-case scenario erupting at one of the many aging nuclear plants already operating (in some cases with safety records that would make your hair stand on end), and at any of the new ones that so many people are calling for.
The problem is that while the most terrible accidents are blessedly rare, when they do occur the consequences are horrific, as we’ve seen in the gulf. With nuclear plants, the worst-case scenarios are too horrible for most people to want to imagine. Denial takes over with policy makers and the public alike. Something approaching a worst-case accident at a nuclear plant, especially one in a highly populated area, would make the Deepwater Horizon disaster look like a walk in the park.
“We are way, way behind when it comes to the hard work of preventing accidents and responding to these catastrophes when they happen,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “With the deep-water oil drilling, we allowed the technological advances to drive the process at a rate that was unsafe, and we got really badly burned. The potential of a nuclear catastrophe is a major disaster in waiting.”
There are already plenty of problems on the nuclear power front, but they don’t get a great deal of media attention. David Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me last week that there have been 47 instances since 1979 in which nuclear reactors in the U.S. have had to be shut down for more than a year for safety reasons.
“We estimated, in 2005 dollars, that the average price tag for these outages was between $1.5 billion and $2 billion,” said Mr. Lochbaum.
People of a certain age will remember the frightening accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in
Another frightening accident occurred in 2002 at the Davis-Besse plant at
The potential problems with nuclear power abound. No one knows what to do with the dangerous nuclear waste that is building up at the plants. And no one wants to have an extended conversation in polite company about the threat of terrorists who could wreak all manner of mayhem with an attack on a plant.
For many very serious people, our overreliance on foreign oil and the potential dire consequences of global warming make the case for moving more toward nuclear energy a compelling one. But if this is done without a whole lot more serious thought given to matters of safety and rigorous oversight, it’s a step we’ll undoubtedly come to regret.
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