Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Nuclear Power Plant Safety?

Last week, I heard a report on NPR that was surprising, but all too familiar in today’s age where greed fuels politics. Recently Japan raised the danger level rating of the Fukushima disaster to a level 7, the highest level on the International Nuclear Event Scale, putting it on the same level as Chernobyl. The severity of this recent crisis has called into question the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants. An extensive investigation recently conducted by the AP revealed that U.S. reactors are much less safe than they appear to be. Over 30% of U.S. reactors are first generation reactors just like those at the Fukushima plant. This means that many of our reactors are almost 50 years old, and during the past years many have avoided significant repairs.

It is a fact of life that over time things wear down, and nuclear reactors are no different. Metals rust, concrete crumbles and pipes leak, which allow for accidents to more easily occur. Not only are many of the reactors in the U.S. old, but many of them have slid through the cracks due to corrupt or lax safety inspections. Here’s how: the government and nuclear power industry have been working together to re-adjust regulations or tweak risk assessments in order to make the plants appear safe in the eyes of the public. Nuclear power plants cost billions of dollars to build, but call for additional funding in order to keep them running efficiently and safely. In order to avoid high repair costs and still pass safety inspections and regulations, energy companies have built close ties with the Nuclear Regulation Committee (NRC). The NRC has repeatedly argued that safety measures are too strict and could be easily loosened without causing any harm. As safety measures are relaxed, reactors begin to wear down, which is able to occur unnoticed. For example, the picture above shows a 5-by-5-inch hole in a section cut from the top of the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio. The hole was a result of boric acid, which leaked from inside the reactor due to cracks in the vessel head. Only three-eighths of an inch of steel cladding remained, which according to the NRC could have resulted in a reactor breach in as little as two months. Fortunately, this hole was discovered before an accident occurred, but three-eighths of an inch is cutting it too close.

It is time that our government places the safety of our citizens above costs. It is depressing to see that time and time again, the government values cutting costs over saving lives and implementing safety measures. The U.S. government not only needs to tighten safety standards and conduct more outside audits, we need to follow other countries who are investing in other safer forms of renewable energy such as wind and solar power. The Japanese government says it will make up the loss of its nuclear future with solar power and other renewable energies. Countries such as Germany, Italy, and Switzerland have also halted many of their nuclear power programs. It is time for the U.S. to re-think its energy programs and focus on safety and sustainability.


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