Don’t Mini-mize the Dangers of Nuclear Power

Cheaper, quicker to build, and small enough to fit in a garage, SMRs could power homes, factories, and military bases

The radiation from Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi reactors poisoned farmlands, contaminated the sea, and sent invisible mists of radiation wafting around the world. The latest – and it’s just the latest – atomic accident has raised new concerns about the risks of nuclear energy. But still the question remains: Are we wise enough to finally understand that nuclear reactors are a fool’s technology?

Earth Island Institute founder David Brower initially believed that “atomic energy could be a safe alternative to damming all our rivers for power.” But Dave soon realized – earlier than most – that “the risk presented by these lethal wastes is like no other risk, and we should not be expected to accept it.” Despite the industry’s glib assurances, nuclear power has never been a safe or foolproof technology. For evidence of that fact, let’s review a few of the major nuclear accidents of the Atomic Age.

  • United Kingdom (1957): Windscale reactor fire contaminates 35 workers. Radioactive cloud covers Northern Europe and causes at least 200 cases of cancer.
  • Soviet Union (1957): Radioactive explosion at Mayak reprocessing site forces evacuation of 10,000 people. Radiation contributes to deaths of 200.
  • USA (1975): Alabama’s Browns Ferry plant catches fire and burns for seven hours with two reactors running. Meltdown feared as fire destroys controls.
  • USA (1979): Partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island. Radiation released. Thousands evacuated.
  • USA (1981): California’s San Onofre plant closed for 14 months to repair 6,000 leaking steam tubes. During restart, plant catches fire, knocking out one of two back-up generators.
  • United Kingdom (1983): Beaches near Sellafield (formerly Windscale) nuclear processing plant closed due to radiation contamination.
  • Soviet Union (1986): Chernobyl explosion. World’s worst nuclear accident – so far. Estimates of associated deaths run from 9,000 to nearly one million people.
  • Japan (1997): Chain reaction at Tokaimura reprocessing plant exposes 37 workers and surrounding neighborhoods to radiation.
  • Japan (1999): Two workers killed at Tokaimura during unplanned chain reaction.
  • Japan (2004): Steam explosion kills four at Mihama reactor.
  • Sweden (2006): Short circuit disables emergency power at Forsmark reactor. Catastrophic core meltdown barely averted.
  • France (2008): Tricastin nuclear facility accidentally releases 18,000 liters of irradiated water.

And that’s just a partial list. The problem with nuclear power is simple: It’s too complex. When things go wrong – as they inevitably do, because humans are fallible – the consequences can be deadly.

The Fukushima disaster has severely hobbled the atomic industry’s hopes for a big-ticket nuclear renaissance. So the American Nuclear Society has proposed a mini-renaissance based on “Small Modular Reactors,” or SMRs. Cheaper, quicker to build, and small enough to fit in a garage, SMRs could power homes, factories, and military bases. South Carolina’s Savannah River National Laboratory hopes to start building SMRs at a New Mexico plant and is taking a lead role in a GE-Hitachi demonstration project.

Even as Japanese engineers were working to contain the radiation risks at Fukushima, an international SMR conference in South Carolina in April attracted representatives from Westinghouse, AREVA, GE, the International Atomic Energy Agency, China National Nuclear Corp., Iraq Energy Institute, the US Army, and many US utilities.

But SMRs still depend on designs that generate intense heat, employ dangerous materials (highly reactive sodium coolant), and generate nuclear waste. SMRs also retain all the risks associated with supplying, maintaining, safeguarding, and dismantling large nuclear reactors – only now those risks would be multiplied and decentralized.

The planet can’t afford nuclear energy – be it mega or mini. As Dave Brower observed 30 years ago: “Is the minor convenience of allowing the present generation the luxury of doubling its energy consumption every 10 years worth the major hazard of exposing the next 20,000 generations to this lethal waste?

“We are at the edge of an abyss and we’re close to being irrevocably lost,” Dave warned. “As the Welshman Allen Reese puts it: ‘At the edge of the abyss, the only progressive move you can make is to step back.’”

Gar Smith is the Journal’s Editor Emeritus and author of the forthcoming report, “Nuclear Roulette,” from the International Forum on Globalization.

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