Twenty-five years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster took place at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, that reactor’s molten core is still leaking. The radiation released there equaled 400 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and radioactive emissions remain high locally. Since Chernobyl, all reactors are built with a containment shell to minimize possible damage. But the destructive power and half-life of radiation have not changed. The world’s second-worst nuclear disaster took place in March, when three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan melted down. There has been no explosion, and the initial release of radiation was a fraction of that at Chernobyl. But the multiple leaks continue to flow into land, air and ocean and will likely do so for decades.
Nuclear energy has been promoted not only as a cost-effective source of power but also as a safer and environmentally cleaner option than fossil fuels. But is it? Proponents tout the industry’s international safety record: Out of 33 nuclear accidents of varying impact since 1952, according to The Guardian, a British newspaper, only the one at Chernobyl in 1986 resulted in mass deaths—31 people died immediately. Yet because cancer and leukemia cells take time to multiply, no one knows how many survivors did or will contract a fatal disease. Projections range from 4,000 to one million disease-related deaths.
Can nuclear power still be described as safe and clean if one factors in the harm to life and planet from reactor meltdowns and hazardous waste? Is nuclear energy “cost effective” if one calculates the full cost, including regular and thorough plant inspections, preventive maintenance, the retirement of outdated reactors and the disposal of radioactive waste? The accident-related costs are now borne mostly by taxpayers, not the nuclear industry. The full costs of nuclear energy are seldom spelled out. That must change. Sound energy policies must be based on accurate cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment.
Fukushima may be a game-changer. Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Japan just scrapped their plans to expand nuclear power. Switzerland and Germany also plan to retire their aged reactors without replacing them, phasing out nuclear power entirely. Instead, Germany will increase conservation and investments in solar and wind power.
After Fukushima, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewed facilities and monitoring procedures at this country’s 66 nuclear power plants. A commission report is expected in August. That information will help policymakers and the public to evaluate the nation’s energy policy, much of which has been stalled in Congress. The public should learn how well many reactors are aging; which plants have a history of safety violations; which are located near major population centers (like the Indian Point power plant, 35 miles from New York City); which are vulnerable to an earthquake, hurricane or combination of natural disasters; and what can be done to enhance the safety of nuclear reactors, especially the 23 that use the same cooling vent design by General Electric that failed at Fukushima. What do the industry and government propose to do? And what would improvements actually cost?
Convening a conference in June to discuss nuclear safety and security, Yukiya Amano, head of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, urged countries to conduct a thorough risk assessment of their nuclear operations. He also outlined a plan to separate regulators from the nuclear industry. “National nuclear regulatory bodies must be genuinely independent, adequately funded and staffed by well-trained people,” he said. Two controversial issues were raised: whether U.N. experts should conduct random inspections of all 440 nuclear plants; and whether international safety standards, which now are nonbinding, should be made compulsory.
Even so, radiation poses extreme risks. The consequences of an accident, a natural disaster or sabotage are grave and far-reaching. And as more reactors are built, these risks increase. The old comparison between nuclear energy and fossil fuels is becoming obsolete as renewable energy sources become practical alternatives. Forward-looking nations should reduce their dependence on nuclear power while converting to less risky, renewable alternatives.
Given the urgency of reducing emissions and oil dependency, U.S. presidential candidates should be asked to state in some detail their energy plans. The case for increasing renewable sources is strong. Consider: What are the risks to health, planet and peace of renewable energy, like that powered by the sun and the wind? What are the gains, political and economic, from using safe, available sources? What are the costs of aggressively developing renewable energy now, so that it can replace nuclear power when the last reactor is retired? Any other course of action would be a waste of this year’s disastrous warnings.