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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

U.S. shouldn't overreact to Japan's nuclear accident

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

Nuclear power has served us well for 57 years, even with dozens of scary events receiving less publicity than Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Japan crisis.

Has the success been by luck or design? And what does the future hold as America's aging fleet of 104 reactors moves deeper into uncharted territory?

It would be easy to write off Anthony R. Pietrangelo, the Nuclear Energy Institute's senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, when he says this about the horrific events in Japan: "I think it's probably unwise to make policy decisions in the middle of the event. People need to calm down and we'll make policy decisions moving forward."

But he's right. Cooler heads must prevail.

What's happening in Japan is as unthinkable as the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina, and the BP oil spill. But the public has a right to demand that nuclear power be treated like a powerful beast that provides enormous benefits when properly tamed and held in check. The technology, if as good as touted, can withstand more scrutiny.

Forget the pro-nuke/anti-nuke rhetoric. All that matters is accountability — and getting more prepared for the unthinkable.

Since former President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his famous "Atoms for Peace" speech on Dec. 8, 1953 — the advent of commercial nuclear power — people have never gotten over their anxiety about nuclear power.
That's not so bad: Remember the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was caught off-guard itself by the historic near-rupture of FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis-Besse original nuclear reactor head in 2002. It now uses that event to keep its scientists on their toes.

On Thursday, the Cambridge-Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists released its latest annual report of the nuclear industry's near-misses. Davis-Besse was on it again, this time for the 2010 discovery of the plant's second reactor head aging three times faster than expected.

Why was earthquake-prone Japan unprepared for even the rare one-two punch of an earthquake followed by a tsunami? Why was the diesel fuel for its emergency generators in above-ground tanks instead of below ground, as they are in the United States?

The United States split the atom; we harnessed the beast. We invented nuclear power. U.S.-based General Electric designed the controversial Mark 1 reactor used in Japan and at 23 U.S. sites, including DTE Energy's Fermi 2 plant north of Monroe. Guess who else the world is watching besides Japan.

Unthinkable. That was the attitude many people had before March 28, 1979, when half of Three Mile Island Unit 2's reactor core in Pennsylvania melted. The modern era of emergency planning is a result of Three Mile Island, as is the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the industry's self-auditing group.

Nobody fathomed Chernobyl exploding in 1986. Nobody fathomed FirstEnergy allowing acid from Davis-Besse's reactor to pool on top of its first reactor head from at least 1996 to 2002, melting through 6 inches of steel and putting northern Ohio on the verge of a radioactive mess.

The NRC is being grilled by Congress for what it has condoned as a regulator. It has a lot of questions to answer.

Why did it tell President Obama that Americans in Japan should get at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station? In the United States, the NRC has assumed only people living within 10 miles of a disaster site would need to evacuate.

"The NRC should not be using different standards abroad than at home," said Edwin Lyman, a Union of Concerned Scientists physicist.

Expanding the evacuation zone to 50 miles would put Toledo into the Davis-Besse and Fermi 2 zones. Detroit and Ann Arbor also would be in the latter. How would that affect the distribution of thyroid-blocking potassium iodide pills?

Crisis or not, the nuclear industry sees itself in America's energy future. The Nuclear Energy Institute said it is still forecasting the construction of four to eight new nuclear plants annually through 2020 within a couple of years. Others are calling for a time-out.

If the nuclear industry can deliver on its promises, God bless it. If not, it's had a good — though somewhat rocky — ride.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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