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Nuclear power is the only realistic future energy source

POSTED March 15, 2011 8:32 p.m.

The earthquake and subsequent tsunami which ravaged Japan last week were unqualified tragedies.

But an even greater tragedy would be allowing an alarmist response to the possible meltdown of three nuclear reactors govern America’s energy policy.

Though we like to think of a future powered by green energy, solar, wind and geothermal energy, frankly, they are not productive enough to power our energy-hungry (and ever growing) country. At least not without quadrupling what we pay for electricity, hamstringing America in competition to our rivals.

Before the Japan quake, the U.S. government had come to the bipartisan conclusion that nuclear is crucial to powering America’s future. It’s an obvious decision.

We’re running out of oil. Natural gas is still plentiful for now, but the future will likely be different. Yet, America has access to a plentiful supply of uranium, some of which could come from a swords-to-plowshares program, converting munitions to energy.

Coal will, of course, play a significant role in American energy for the foreseeable future. But it’s not as clean as nuclear in terms of emissions, actually releasing radiation of its own by way of ash. And, while storing nuclear waste creates its own issues, we’ve come up with workable solutions to store that waste with a near-zero affect on the environment.

Given current technology, nuclear power is the only realistic future energy source. But the concern with nuclear energy, now as always, is safety.

It’s hard to discuss nuclear energy in America. Like Japan, we’re haunted by images of nuclear fallout in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We collectively remember the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown – if for no other reason than Hooters’ inflammatorily named hot wing sauce – and we fear Chernobyl, the example of what might have been.

The media makes it no easier. We’re bombarded with images of bumbling nuclear plant workers and three eyed fish – “The Simpsons” – and pet turtles that become martial arts masters named after renaissance artists. All seem to be nonsensical, non real-world portrayals of the “dangers” of radiation, which make calm, sensible talk about the future of American energy quite difficult.

All this, despite Three Mile Island – what was, until now, the second worst nuclear accident in history –as leading to no deaths or injuries.

History has shown oil drilling can be more destructive than radiation. Last year’s BP Deepwater oil spill was a tragic reminder. So was the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

And coal mining, the dirty business necessary to meet our soaring energy demand, is no safer. Eighteen Americans died mining coal in 2009, and 311 Americans died in the 2000’s alone. Sadly 2,631 Chinese coal miners died in 2009 – a good year, considering the 50,000-plus Chinese coal miners who have died in the 2000’s. And this doesn’t even begin to consider the 13,000 Americans who each year due to fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants, according to a Clean Air Task Force report.

Based on what we know now, the danger posed by Japan’s reactors don’t come close to this scale of destruction.

It’s worth pointing out that a 41-year old reactor was hit by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake – one of the largest on record. Then, 20-foot high waves travelling 500 miles per hour hit the reactor building. Then, two explosions rocked the building, venting stored up hydrogen and blowing the roof off of one building.

Japan’s three reactors are endangered because electricity was cut following the quake. This forced a shutdown of the cooling systems, which circulate water through the reactors.

Normally, backup, diesel generators would come online if electricity were cut. But, in what was now a clear error, those generators were placed in the building’s basement, flooded in the tsunami after seawalls were breached, and are now useless.

So nuclear officials are now pumping in sea water mixed with boron – a nuclear retardant – in attempts to cool the reactors and eventually shut them down. This is a last-ditch effort which will result in scuttling the power plant.

The reactors are venting steam, though, with some radioactive elements. It’s a similar situation to Three Mile Island, generally speaking, though with magnitudes more radiation being released.

 Some people will likely be hurt. Some will likely die, and that’s not to be discounted.

But this isn’t going to be Chernobyl, as far as we can tell. Despite the damage the Japanese plant sustained, the reactor vessels and primary containment units appear to be intact; meaning a relatively minimal amount of radiation will escape.  And that’s saying something, considering all that this plant went through.

A perfect storm forced this nuclear calamity in Japan. And, unless the situation changes, the reactors seem to have weathered this perfect storm quite well, all things considered.

Nuclear will always have the potential for meltdowns. These meltdowns can be serious events, as Chernobyl proved.

But they’ve also been shown to be exceedingly rare. This is the third such event on record.

It’s like flying. Plane crashes are dramatic and will make the news, leaving some deathly afraid of flying. Yet more than 40,000 Americans die in auto accidents each year with rarely a passing mention.

Nuclear is scary because of these rare, large incidents, brought about by once-in-a-lifetime disasters. But, in the long term, it’s a better option for you, me and the environment.

Let’s not be scared of the nuclear boogeyman. Let’s continue to make nuclear energy a part of America’s future.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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