Time to re-evaluate nuclear power

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Twenty-five years ago yesterday, one of the reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg suffered a partial meltdown. While the plant?s engineers were able to shut it down effectively before it caused a total disaster, thousands of gallons of radioactive water spewed from a controlled area and thousands of radioactive fuel rods were ruptured.
This catastrophe created a mass hysteria in the American community; Walter Cronkite opened the CBS Evening News that night by calling the incident ?the first step in a nuclear nightmare.? Since the incident, no new construction of nuclear power plants has happened in the United States, excepting the completion of one plant that was already under construction. Unfortunately, this country has failed to realize in the intervening two and a half decades that all of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt surrounding nuclear power was totally unfounded.
Numerous reports, including one issued earlier this month by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), have shown that almost no lingering health effects exist from the incident; according to the NRC, the average dose of radiation to the millions of residents of the area was less than the total dose from a standard chest X-ray.
Furthermore, most of what led to the partial meltdown of the reactor was caused by gross mismanagement and negligence on the part of the people running the plant, not by anything inherently unsafe about nuclear energy. As investigation after investigation has shown since the incident, the safety features of the plant kicked in and operated correctly on that fateful day; had they not gone ignored by plant workers, nothing would have ever happened.
Unlike the United States, other countries throughout the world have continued to build nuclear reactors with overwhelmingly positive results. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are currently 440 nuclear reactors providing more than 360 net terawatts of power to the world. This figure represents roughly 15 percent of the world?s energy supply; in some countries, the number is much higher.
France gets more than three quarters of its power from 59 nuclear reactors; of them, 53 have been built since the incident at Three Mile Island. No major incidents have occurred there. Other countries with large amounts of power from nuclear fission include Lithuania (80 percent) and Slovakia (65 percent); Japan has 53 reactors providing 44 terawatts of power.
In fact, in the history of nuclear power, there have only been two major incidents: the 1979 partial meltdown of Three Mile Island reactor #2 (TMI 2) and the much worse explosion on April 26, 1986, at Chernobyl in present-day Ukraine. In contrast to what was mostly a non-incident in Harrisburg, the Chernobyl incident severely impacted hundreds of thousands of lives.
The main similarity between TMI 2 and Chernobyl, though, is that both were caused by human error. TMI 2 would not have been an incident had operators heeded warnings in weeks leading up to it, and the Chernobyl event happened while operators had deactivated safety procedures to run some experimental tests on the reactor.
Human error causes many of the major accidents that we hear about. It?s not unreasonable to think that a coal power plant could explode from negligence of its operators and cause just as much damage as a nuclear meltdown.
Even with all of the construction in the last 25 years, no nation comes anywhere close to the nuclear output of the United States; 103 reactors still operate today and provide 97 terawatts of power. All of them have continued to run safely since before TMI 2; several more have been safely shut down.
Concerns mounted two years ago when inspectors found a large hole in the outer shell of the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio; an acidic coolant had eaten the opening in the steel shell. This incident only underscores how important a renewed commitment to nuclear energy is; as long as the industry is neglected, problems like this will continue to crop up.
The Bush administration outlined a plan that calls for at least one new nuclear plant by 2010; if anything, this plan is a step in the right direction. Nuclear energy today is the only globally feasible power source with a lower unit cost than coal. Nuclear is a major option for this country today, and it has stood the test of time. New technology is only making nuclear power safer; it is time for America to stop being scared of a golden opportunity to move into the future.

Tartan Managing Editor Jim Puls (jpuls@) has fond memories of visiting the energy museum at the Zion reactor in Illinois as a child. He finds it really disturbing that he agrees with a policy decision by the Bush administration.