Not-so-clean nuclear energy

Darasota Herald Tribune

Not-so-clean nuclear energy

Not-so-clean nuclear energy

Damage at Japanese plant should give Florida pause

The next time proponents tout today’s nuclear power as clean and safe, someone should counter with a one-word response: Japan.

That is where an earthquake last week knocked 300-plus gallons of radioactive water into the sea. As of Friday, damage to the Kashiwazaki-Kariya nuclear power plant was still being assessed.

Among the problems reported so far, according to The Associated Press: malfunctioning pumps in the water intake screening at two reactors; loss in water-tight seal of the reactor core cooling system; cracks in an embankment of the water intake facility; and ground liquefaction under portions of the plant.

Let’s all hope these issues — potentially affecting critical portions of the world’s largest nuclear power plant — prove minor. But let’s also mind the fact that the facility was damaged despite being engineered to withstand a quake.

Such episodes must be heeded in Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist has stepped up advocacy of alternative energy, including nuclear, to reduce emissions that contribute to global warming. Crist considers nuclear power clean and safe, saying, “It’s been a long time since Three Mile Island.”

New technologies

In some respects, Crist is right: The industry has evolved since the 1979 meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania. The episode rocked the industry, although disaster was averted.

Despite the risk inherent in nuclear material, and many close calls, deaths involving nuclear energy plants have been rare. And they’ll get rarer as next-generation reactors are developed, experts say. New technologies are expected to minimize radioactive waste and prevent the possibility of out-of-control chain reactions and other hazards.

These upcoming reactor designs — not the kind now used in the United States or at the quake-damaged Japanese plant — are also said to simplify operations and reduce costs. But whether they will live up to their hype remains to be seen.

Despite the promise, there is a key problem with Crist’s embrace of nuclear power: It is not clear that Florida would get the best available technology.

The most theoretically safe and appealing reactor designs — so-called “Generation 4” — could be decades away from deployment. “Generation 3-plus” — considered safer and more efficient than what is now generally used — is on the cusp of deployment, but will Florida’s power providers choose it?

Crist’s problematic push

Because climate change and fossil-fuel pollution are significant threats to water-bound Florida, Crist is right to demand energy reforms. We applaud the governor’s calls for deeper conservation efforts and his initiatives to develop underutilized wind and solar power.

But his less publicized push toward nukes remains problematic. Despite its relatively safe record using an older technology, the industry continues to produce radioactive waste without a long-term storage solution. And, if a dreaded accident does occur, the potential for catastrophic damage is real.

If futuristic reactor design can truly solve those problems, Crist should insist on it. But if his intent is to allow more of yesterday’s inadequate technology, Floridians should put a halt to that notion.

The environmental woes from oil, gas and coal are costly enough. Don’t compound them with radioactive risk.

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