The on-going and ever-worsening cascade of nuclear disasters at the Fukushima nuclear power plant site in Japan has raised many questions. But the most fundamental must be: If the consequences of a massive failure at a nuclear plant is the potentially permanent radioactive contamination of people, animals, land and sea; and if the possibility of preventing such a failure is not zero; then should such a technology be used to boil water?
The only morally responsible answer must surely be ‘no.’
Unfortunately, the U.S. administration and the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress do not see things in the same light. While countries like China, Germany and Switzerland announced almost immediate push-backs of their nuclear programs, President Obama simply ordered “a comprehensive review” of safety at U.S. nuclear plants. During a March 30 energy speech, Obama reaffirmed a commitment not only to the currently operating nuclear fleet but also to new reactor construction.
More disconcerting is that the federal agency mandated to carry out that “comprehensive review,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has a long track record of ceding to the financial demands of industry when enforcement of its own safety rules are challenged. Thus, on multiple occasions, the NRC has tolerated industry stonewalling of safety fixes, knowingly allowing reactors to continue operating in a dangerous condition and in violation of U.S. federal law such as fire code.
This kind of gambling with the lives of the American public to stretch nuclear production margins continues unfettered. While the NRC is answerable to Congress, that body has never challenged its effectiveness. That has been left to activists and watchdog groups. The NRC’s loyalty to the profit-margins of the nuclear industry can in part be explained by the fact that 90% of the agency’s funding comes from fees it levies from the reactor owners.
Therefore, despite assurances from the nuclear industry, the NRC, the White House and Congress that Americans have nothing to fear from a Fukushima-style disaster in the U.S., the reality is rather different.
There are 23 GE Mark I boiling water reactors operating in the U.S. that are practically identical to the ones in crisis at Fukushima. These designs were recognized by the U.S. nuclear safety officials in 1972 and again in 1985 as too dangerous for continued operation and 90% likely to experience a containment failure in the event of an accident. Yet on March 21, even as the Fukushima tragedy continued to unfold, the NRC relicensed one such Mark I – the Vermont Yankee reactor which has experienced a fire, a cooling tower collapse and numerous leaks of tritium into groundwater; all clear signs that plant safety margins are breaking down.
However, any one of the country’s 104 reactors could suffer an accident. Mechanical and design failure compounded by human error must always be considered. A natural disaster – a record flood or even a fallen tree as happened when the U.S. Northeast was blacked out in 2003 – can cause a massive power outage, sending a nuclear plant into crisis.
Current U.S. public opinion polls show a dramatic swing against nuclear power. As radioactive fallout is detected in new U.S. states each day, the Fukushima message is registering: A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. It remains to be seen whether a nuclear industry-beholden White House, Congress and regulator will demonstrate enough integrity to act in the best interests of current and future generations or continue to risk another nuclear nightmare, this time on U.S. soil.
Linda Pentz Gunter, a British-born and U.S.-based former journalist, is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a U.S. advocacy group based in Takoma Park, Maryland. More information about Beyond Nuclear can be found on its website at www.beyondnucear.org and on its Facebook and @BeyondNuclear Twitter page.