The Nuclear Option

     ABC News did a series of stories in October 2005 called Loose Nukes on Main Street, implying that terrorists could easily gain access to nuclear reactors in the United States and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which represents the nuclear power industry, exposed multiple flaws in that series.

     Although Axelrods recent report included the facts that nuclear power is an attractive emissions-free alternative to much-maligned fossil fuels, and that plants are fortified to withstand all sorts of external disasters, most media accounts have centered on the scary unknowns which will remain scary as long as the media leave so many questions unanswered.

Not In My Backyard?
     On the April 27, 2005, World News Tonight, ABCs Charles Gibson and Betsy Stark were discussing the NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard, problem of locating new oil refineries. The conversation about the presidents energy initiatives then turned to nuclear power and its similarity to oil refining that no new plants have been built in a long time. Stark said, The problem is still the public. While the Chinese and Europeans are getting used to nuclear power as a source of electricity, in the United States ever since Three Mile Island, Americans have been afraid of it.

     Though that was Starks impression, it turns out that the vast majority of people who live near nuclear plants arent so afraid, according to an August 2005 survey of more than 1,000 adults living within 10 miles of each of the 64 U.S. plants. The NEI-commissioned study, which excluded employees of the electric companies, found that 85 percent of residents gave their local plants a high safety rating, and 84 percent agreed that the company was doing a good job of protecting the environment. Also, 76 percent said they would be willing to have a new reactor built near them.

The World Goes Nuclear
     Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, and other countries depend on it much more. According to the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, At least five countries, including France, Sweden and Belgium, rely on nuclear power for more than 50% of their total electrical supplies. Another ten countries, including Finland, Japan, Republic of Korea, Spain and Switzerland rely on nuclear plants to provide 30% or more of their total supplies.

     Energy-hungry China is also moving ahead with its nuclear power plans, and its government takes a different approach to public relations about the plants it discourages opposition. Towns with reactors advertise them as though they were national treasures, wrote Sarah Schafer for Newsweek International in the February 6 issue. Schafers article detailed the Chinese attempt to leapfrog ahead with the newest and safest technology to build more plants.

     Nuclears emissions-free nature has brought some prominent environmentalists to its side, including Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. Moore now heads Greenspirit Strategies Ltd., a Canadian environmental consulting firm. In a rare, balanced report, the February 1 CBS Evening News highlighted Moores new activism, encouraging the United States to build more reactors. CBSs Axelrod pointed out that no new plants had been ordered for construction in America since the 1979 radiation leak at Three Mile Island. But Axelrod later said, Youre telling me the reason we dont build nuclear power plants in the United States any more is because of a psychology that isnt supported by the facts. Moore replied, Thats correct.

But What about the Terrorists?
     Naturally, terrorists and nuclear material are a combination plant operators want to avoid. Since 9/11, the U.S. nuclear industry has spent more than $1.2 billion on additional security measures, said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the NEI. That included a 60-percent increase in armed security guards.

     Given the fact that nuclear power plants are so fortified and well-defended anyone whos looking to do damage isnt going to go after hardened targets first, Kerekes said. Theyre going to go after softer targets.

     Kerekes said lessons from accidents at plants in the past served to improve the industrys practices, including better sharing of information. The industry created the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in order to go above and beyond required standards, Kerekes said.

     The Christian Science Monitor addressed the question of terrorist threats in a February 6 article entitled America Warms Up to Nuclear Power. David R. Francis cited Patrick Moore, explaining the fortification of nuclear reactors:

Terrorists might succeed in crashing an airplane into a nuclear plant. But a modern containment structure is unlikely to be penetrated. It consists of six feet of reinforced concrete, with one-inch steel plates on both sides. Even if such a suicide mission succeeded in penetrating the dome, the plant would not explode. Radiation might be spread, but most of it would weaken rapidly and is less dangerous than many think, says Moore.

New Technologies, New Plants, Old Regulations
     The 2005 energy bill included tax breaks targeting construction of new nuclear plants. Technology has advanced since the last plants were built, said Heritage Foundation energy analyst Ben Lieberman, and new plants would be even safer than they have in years past.

     All the risks theres truth to those, but they can be dealt with, Lieberman said. Still, environmental regulations keep the process mired in years and years of hoop-jumping, he said. And the same problem limited infrastructure affects U.S. energy resources from oil refining to nuclear power.

     We just sort of got complacent when energy was cheap in the 1990s, he said.

     But environmentalists urging that Americans should simply reduce their demand for energy is unrealistic. We cant diet our way out of a famine, Lieberman said. We have a growing economy, and that means more energy use.

For more information:

    Nuclear Energy Institute