During the past decade many Americans have bought into the notion that nuclear power can be safe. But after the catastrophe at Fukushima, the stark realities of nuclear power have become impossible to ignore.
I was just a baby when the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident occurred and a young child in Idaho during the Chernobyl disaster. That event took place on April 26, 1986. My peers and I have no specific memories of either of these accidents. Their impact has faded even for many of those who were adults at the time.
But the devastating events in Japan demonstrate, once again, that the risks associated with nuclear power are unacceptable. They are unacceptable in terms of the threats posed to public health and safety and unacceptable in terms of economic risks. Nuclear costs too much (so much so that the industry cannot compete on Wall Street) and takes too long to build. In fact, reactors are so slow and costly to construct that they impede climate protection measures. They must have vast quantities of water, there is no solution to their waste, and the threats they pose to our health and resources are too great. It was once said that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” It is now clear that it is both too expensive and too dangerous to matter.
As pro-nuclear lobbyists descend on Washington, D.C., to do triage on the myth of the renaissance, we are asked to put aside our misgivings and leap back into the promise of nuclear power. Instead of talking about what Fukushima has meant and will mean for the people of Japan and around the world (levels of iodine-131 were elevated in Boise rainwater), we are hearing that nuclear power is still a viable option for our energy future. We are being asked to turn a blind eye to a crisis that has been unfolding for more than a month. Fukushima is now rated as a 7—the highest nuclear disaster rating—and it will be going on for some time, not to clean up but rather to stave off further serious harm.
Every reactor building on this planet is filled with deadly material. A quarter of the U.S. fleet of 104 reactors are the same as the Fukushima design. There is no safe level of ionizing radiation in the sense of zero risk (National Academies’ 7th Report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation, 2006). Moreover, Fukushima demonstrates quite clearly that a billion dollar asset can turn into a multi-billion dollar liability overnight.
Such heavy liabilities call into question the notion that a new fleet of reactors is going to come to fruition. Even before the Fukushima disaster, the supposed renaissance was a pipe dream dependent on government handouts and plagued with design problems. The already long delayed South Texas Project reactor development lost its funding from NRG Energy April 19. The financer sited Fukushima as the final factor that made building new nuclear reactors too daunting.
We will eventually learn many hard lessons from Fukushima. We already know that reactors should not be co-located on the same site and that we should not produce or use mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. After Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima, it is time to stop taking risks that we and future generations cannot afford. We need to stop all new nuclear power reactors and phase out the 104 plants in operation in the United States today. The first step is to cancel all new government loan guarantees for new reactors. Let’s finally learn from these devastating lessons that nuclear power is not worth the risks.
Liz Woodruff is the executive director of the Snake River Alliance, Idaho’s Nuclear Watchdog and Advocate for Clean Energy. More information at snakeriveralliance.org.