Commentary Forum Topic 3/22/11

Crisis in Japan Causes Concerns over U.S. Nuclear Power Program

By Chris Britt

Observers of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis in Japan are becoming more optimistic that the Japanese are turning the tide in their battle to avoid total nuclear disaster with round the clock use of water canons which have been spraying the reactors in an attempt to cool the nuclear fuel rods which were exposed when three systems (designed to keep the rods cool) failed as a result of the historic earthquake and tsunami. As Japan appears, for the moment, to have avoided the worst-case scenario for the damaged nuclear plant, American politicians concerned about the safety of nuclear power have begun asking questions as to the role nuclear power should play in our national energy policy.
As they view how close Japan came to a serious catastrophe with the damaged nuclear plant, they are asking questions. Is it possible, they wonder, for the U.S. to suffer a disaster comparable to the one we have just witnessed in Japan? Can a series of cascading disasters disable a U.S. nuclear plant to the degree the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was crippled in Japan? The answer they are hearing is that while it is highly unlikely due to better designs and higher standards, nothing is fool proof. While our reactors, with the exception of two in California, which are arguably built to higher standards than the Japanese plants, are not located on fault lines for possible earthquakes, there are no absolutes. Whether from a terrorist attack or a meteor striking a nuclear plant, experts cannot promise that there is a zero chance of a repeat of what we saw in Japan. Nature will always be unpredictable. Any system that depends on human beings, no matter how carefully monitored, is subject to human error. Could it happen here? Possibly.
Nuclear power has been for the most part strongly supported by Republicans over the years. Now the concern by liberals and most Democrats over the potential harm of man-made global warming has given the use of nuclear power, as an option for meeting our energy needs, increasing support among their ranks as well. Nuclear power does not produce the high levels of greenhouse gases believed by many to contribute to global warming. The Obama administration has, in fact, advocated the building of new nuclear energy plants as part of the long-term energy strategy for the U.S. There are currently 104 commercial nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. The last nuclear plant to be completed went online in 1996.
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crisis, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced it will launch a comprehensive safety review of the 104 nuclear power plants across the U.S., at the request of President Obama. The Obama administration, it stated, “continues to support the expansion of nuclear power in the United States, despite the crisis in Japan.”
Supporters of nuclear power point out that those U.S. plants are performing well. Nuclear power plants now operate at a 90 percent capacity factor, compared to 56 percent in 1980. Additionally, and in contrast to oil and gas, nuclear fuel costs are low and relatively stable. Fuel costs now average less than one half cent per kilowatt-hour. This is well below the costs of major competing fossil fuels. Production costs for nuclear power, operation and maintenance costs, plus fuel costs are also low, averaging 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. This cost roughly matches coal and is significantly below the costs of operating a natural gas plant. Supporters argue that other countries have long since had a more aggressive policy towards developing nuclear power and have had no ill effects. They point to France, which derives over 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy as a model of where the U.S. nuclear program should be. In fact, about 17 percent of the French electricity production now comes from recycled nuclear fuel. Supporters of nuclear power warn that the crisis in Japan should not be used to paralyze the nuclear powered energy solutions for America.

Forum Question of the Week:

In light of the nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan, should there be a review of the role of nuclear power in meeting the energy needs of society, or are the nuclear power critics and naysayers overreacting at the expense of a safe and clean energy source?

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