Nuclear Power and Superstorms Don’t Mix

Now is the time to assess future risks to our dependence on nuclear energy

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In this satellite view, the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power plant is seen after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 14, 2011 in Futaba, Japan

Superstorm Sandy’s unexpected wrath makes a powerful case for revisiting Fukushima and the dangers to nuclear energy from natural disasters. As Sandy made landfall on Atlantic City, Oyster Creek nuclear power plant nearby was fortunately on a scheduled outage. But Indian Point 3 in Buchanan, N.Y., Nine Mile Point 1 in Scriba, N.Y., and Salem Unit 1 in Hancocks Bridge, N.J., all experienced shutdowns because of high water levels or electrical disruption. Last year, the dangerous Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown was caused by similar conditions after tsunami waves flooded the plant and short-circuited both the regular and back-up electrical systems.

Equally dangerous are drought and record heat conditions the U.S. experienced last summer. In August, one of two reactors at the Millstone nuclear power plant near New London, Conn., not far from where I grew up, was shut down because water in Long Island Sound needed to cool the reactors got too warm. Cool water is necessary to produce electricity.

(MORE: Will We Be Seeing More Superstorms?)

Fukushima has been a worldwide wakeup call, particularly for the United States, the country with the largest number of reactors — 104. The lesson is glaringly obvious: when nature and nuclear energy collide the consequences can be lethal. Unfortunately, Japan is not offering an inspiring example of how to handle this threat. While all but two of the country’s 50 reactors remain offline, government and nuclear industry are proposing plant restarts and construction projects. This muddled move stands against the majority of Japanese citizens who have turned against nuclear power. As we face an increasingly volatile climate, the United States could conceivably lead the way in reducing dependence on nuclear energy.

(MORE: Is Post-Fukushima Japan Safe for Tourists?)

Of course, nuclear power can bring significant economic benefits. The Nuclear Energy Institute states that every year the average U.S. plant generates about $470 million in sales and services and about $40 million in total labor income to local communities. NEI adds that about $16 million goes toward state and local tax revenue and that operating plants create 400 to 700 full-time jobs. That nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases has also been a powerful argument for nuclear advocates. Another is energy independence. For energy-hungry Japan where fossil fuels must be imported, nuclear power has offered a stable source with controlled prices independent from the volatile Middle East.

But we must weigh the risks. It’s estimated that superstorm Sandy will affect more than one fifth of Americans and cost up to $20 billion in damages. Imagine the addition of a major nuclear accident, potentially more lethal than Three Mile Island. The health, environmental and economic costs would be, simply put, insurmountable. It’s time to face the facts: Mother Nature rules. The best we can do is try to lessen the damage from her wrath. Phasing out nuclear power is the safe answer.

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