Editorial: Will nuclear option work?

AS MUCH AS WE KNOW about nature and science, nothing could have prepared us for the images from Japan’s multiple calamities last week. My thoughts turned immediately to our niece and her family in the Tokyo suburb of Yokohama. Fortunately, that densely populated part of the country escaped the devastation from the earthquake and tsunami. But my niece and nephew have young children, and along with mourning those who’ve died and the impact of the cleanup and recovery, they live with the threat of radiation exposure from crippled nuclear power plants.

Trying to comprehend this disaster inevitably leads to comparisons. Columbia County lies about 60 miles north of Indian Point on the Hudson River, the site of the nuclear reactors nearest the county. That’s about half the distance between my relatives in Japan and the plant that has released most of the radiation so far. Nothing in the recent history of our region points to seismic activity here anything like the earthquakes that regularly shake Japan. Still, the plants at Indian Point are built on the Ramapo Fault, a crack in the Earth’s surface where earthquakes can happen.

The Indian Point plants – there are three, but one is closed – have operated for years with what regulators consider acceptable safety lapses, supplying power to the region. But there are lingering concerns over whether residents could evacuate in an emergency and whether it’s wise to operate nuclear plants so close the largest population center in the nation.

Representative Chris Gibson (R-20th) ran for Congress last fall on a platform that promoted many domestic energy sources, including wind, solar and nuclear. He said then and has since confirmed his support for building one or more nuclear plants in his district. In a phone conference this week reported in the media, he reiterated his position and his belief that plants can be built to operate safely.

Far from a partisan stance, Mr. Gibson’s general position is shared by President Obama and many other political leaders. Locally, there’s a town board less than 40 miles north of Columbia County that has agreed to research whether a plant could be built there.

Mr. Gibson points out, correctly, that all the current green power alternatives together — wind, solar, water, geothermal — can’t come close to supplying the output of nuclear plants, or plants that burn oil and coal, for that matter. Meanwhile the economy, which includes you and me, gobbles up more and more energy.

Although Mr. Gibson is a climate change skeptic, some one-time opponents of the nuclear industry have also begun to accept the necessity for nuclear power as one of the best ways to reduce the manmade emissions warming the planet. They add one more powerful argument in favor of new nuclear plants.

Nuclear plant opponents start with the assumption that humans can’t out-engineer nature, and thus, no plant is ever completely safe. They’re right; but the same can be said of airplanes and cars. Engineers will probably learn plenty from the failures of the Japanese plants, much as they do from crashes; some of that knowledge will lead to safer plants.

But what about the cost? If a car crashes, the manufacturer has to pay for the recall. But a nuclear accident that poisons the soil, could make the land unsuitable for farming and unavailable for human habitation, let alone second homes, for a long time to come. That kind of disaster, the issue facing Japan right now, has an immense price tag. And private industry won’t insure the loss. Only the federal government, which means taxpayers, would be able to bail out a region hit by a major nuclear accident.

It’s worth noting that one of the radiation releases in Japan came from a pool containing depleted nuclear fuel. U.S. nuclear plants also keep old fuel rods on site because the government can’t find a place to store them. Building new nuclear plants before taxpayers know the cost or even the feasibility of storing the spent fuel safely for thousands of years exposes not only us but our great, great, great… grandchildren to a financial liability nobody can yet calculate.

Maybe Mr. Gibson is right about the need for new nuclear plants. But before anyone starts building them in this district or anywhere else, wouldn’t it be fiscally prudent to see how much the destruction of the plants now burning in Japan will cost that country? Maybe then we’ll know if we can afford the risk of a similar disaster happening here. 

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