CHURCHVILLE, VA—The air over northeastern Japan is slightly radioactive—not at dangerous levels for people, but an indicator that higher levels might come. The newspapers in Japan and here are talking earnestly about failures in pressure vessels and falsified safety reporting, as they should.
But now, a slightly hysterical Surgeon General of the United States is recommending that millions of U.S. residents buy iodide crystals to ward off potential thyroid cancer—from a nuclear event thousands miles away. Four thousand people were on the site of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986; nine have died from thyroid cancer exposure.
Greenpeace, under a heading of “No New Nukes” is trumpeting that “There is no such thing as a ‘safe’ dose of radiation… If a meltdown were to occur, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people.” This is a two-subject statement:
- Obviously we are all exposed to safe levels of radiation every day; and many of us owe our lives to the tumor-destroying blessing of directed medical radiation.
- There has never been a “meltdown”—the temperatures in a nuclear plant are about 550 degrees F–the highest setting of your home oven.
Lost in the discussion is this simple reality: These nuclear plants withstood a 9.0 earthquake—even greater than their design strength—with no reactor problems. But the diesel generators that backed up the nukes’ electrical cooling systems were drowned by the tsunami. The huge wave knocked out the power grid for the entire region. Everybody agrees it is the water that’s boiled out of the spent waste pools that is the real radioactivity risk to the public—because the generators were knocked off line.
The New York Times says one of the diesel generators was in the basement of the reactor building—where the tsunami waters quickly drowned it. At another plant, the generators were behind an 18-foot seawall, and the tsunami was 21 feet high.
In 1990, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission identified diesel generator failure as one of the “most likely causes” of nuclear accidents from an external event. That report was cited in a 2004 statement by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, but apparently the folks at Tokyo Electric didn’t read it carefully. Now they face billions of dollars in losses to their reactors and billions more in lawsuit damages. Instead of a few thousand dollars to ensure their diesel generators were up high enough to protect against a tsunami—like on the roof of the administration building!
There’s another lesson here, too—for the United States and for Greenpeace. It is dangerous to keep spent fuel rods sitting around the reactor site, even when they’re protected by circulating water. We should immediately reopen work on the long-delayed storage faculty at Yucca Mountain—so far blocked by activist lawsuits and a cowardly congress. Or, we could reprocess the spent fuel rods to recover much of the energy and keep the nuclear plants sustainable.
Bottom line: How many thousands of people would die in a severe winter if Greenpeace’s favorite wind turbines don’t have any wind to turn them? Britain last winter got just 9 percent of the rated generating capacity of its huge wind turbine arrays. What kept Britons from literally freezing to death in their homes were the back-up fossil fuel plants that have to be kept in “spinning reserve” behind the erratic turbines. But the fossil backup required is why the wind turbines don’t reduce greenhouse emissions. And they provide no protection for the public from weather just cold enough to freeze ice in nearby ponds.
If we won’t build nuclear plants we had better learn to love coal and oil to keep the lights on and the heat warming.