February 1, 2010

It's been a long time since nuclear power was in the public eye, and now that we're running out of oil, it seems like a good alternative to people who weren't alive during Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. With President Barack "Clean Coal" Obama endorsing it in the SOTU address, new power plants are inevitable.

Hey, I'd love cheap, clean energy as much as the next person. But states that are dealing with the aging facilities know nuclear energy is not as easy as they'd like us to think. There's the problem of waste disposal, of course, and while the risks of a major event are allegedly small, the potential for human catastrophe is enormous:

But the leaks have the potential to slow, if not stop, the bandwagon. Crucial voices are calling for caution. “I am appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes at their facilities," US Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said last week. Earlier this month, Markey asked the US Government Accountability Office to investigate the integrity, safety, inspections, and maintenance of buried pipes at nuclear plants.

Critics say the problems with buried pipes are evidence the plants are too old and poorly maintained to continue to safely operate as many - including plants in Seabrook, N.H., and Plymouth - seek extensions of their original 40-year operating licenses. Nuclear advocates, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, say that while the leaks of a radioactive form of water containing tritium are serious, those that have contaminated groundwater have not exceeded regulatory limits or harmed the structural integrity, operation, or safety of the plants.

“No leak of tritium has ever had a negative impact on the health and safety of the public," said Tom Kauffman, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a prominent industry group. In 2006, the industry took it upon itself to search more aggressively for problems with buried piping and tritium leaks.

“These are the most highly regulated, highly monitored industrialized [power plants] in the nation," Kauffman said. He said the nation’s 104 nuclear plants are some of the greenest sources of energy in the country. “It is very important to keep these plants working."

In other words, safe nuclear energy boils down to the same thing it always did: "Trust us." Well, do you? Do you trust them?

When I first wrote about this many years ago, I said that I would trust power company officials when they built their luxury houses on the grounds adjoining their plants, and moved in with their children and grandchildren to stay. I still say that.

If nuclear energy is as safe as they say, it shouldn't be a problem.

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