As Japan struggles in the wake of a tripartite disaster to cope with the tragic loss of human life and suffering and to try protect people from further harm, our thoughts and deepest sympathies go out to the Japanese people. Emergency relief and utility workers are working around the clock to clear debris, find missing victims, relocate people at risk of radiation exposure and contain several nuclear reactor meltdowns.
It is premature to know what specific lessons can be gained or long-term global effects this will have on nuclear power and disaster preparedness, but the ongoing catastrophe certainly gives rise to the need to encourage greater scrutiny of existing and planned nuclear power plants. All countries with nuclear reactors are currently reassessing safety plans, recalibrating preparedness for more intense natural disasters, and looking at future expansion of nuclear power in a new light. There are currently 442 nuclear power plants around the world, providing 13% of the world’s electricity. China has temporarily suspended approval of new nuclear plants to scrutinize safety issues more closely, while France, which relies on nuclear power to supply 80 percent of its electricity, has ordered a legislative investigation into the future of the French nuclear industry.
The U.S. obtains about 20% of its power from nuclear plants, and President Obama has ordered a comprehensive review of all nuclear power plants’ safety. There are 104 nuclear plants in the U.S., the most recent of which was completed in 1996. Several applications for new traditional reactors are pending, and the Tennessee Valley Authority is the closest to completion with a partially constructed reactor. However, recent nuclear investment and research in the U.S. has been focused on developing micro-reactors, which some investors view as having potential to have greater flexibility in location, higher safety, and lower cost.
Safety risks from nuclear plant failure, disposal of radioactive waste and high insurance and building costs must be given the utmost consideration in planning for future maintenance or expansion of nuclear power’s role in supplying electricity. These risks have always been present, but when a terrible event occurs, it brings them into sharper focus and reinvigorates the public debate and awareness. The United States must redouble its efforts to examine whether each one of our own nuclear facilities can withstand natural and/or manmade disasters, and determine the safety and cost-effectiveness of nuclear power going forward.
Links to research and a range of opinions on nuclear power:
National Academy of Sciences: http://dels.nas.edu/nrsb
Nuclear Regulatory Commission: http://www.nrc.gov/
Dept of Energy: http://www.ne.doe.gov/
Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/
Environmental Defense Fund: http://www.edf.org/article.cfm?contentid=4470.
U.S. PIRG: http://www.uspirg.org/issues/safe-energy
Nuclear industry: http://www.nei.org/keyissues/