Entire towns vanished.
Thousands dead, thousands more missing and feared dead.
And as individual families in Japan and the world as a whole begin to grieve last week’s horrific earthquake and tsunami, we are also learning firsthand about the vulnerability of nuclear energy.
The technology that resource-scarce Japan harnessed to become an industrial powerhouse is now becoming a horror in its own right.
Tuesday morning, Japan was facing the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear accident after an explosion at the most damaged reactor.
Friday’s double whammy of a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed backup systems at several facilities. The reactors apparently survived the quake, but the electrical systems required to pump water to cool the reactors didn’t withstand the tsunami.
Americans must learn from this tragedy in our own necessary pursuit of nuclear power as part of a broader plan to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Nearly all of the 104 reactors in this country are on coastlines and near earthquake faults, and, similar to Japan’s, they utilize backup electrical systems that rely on diesel generators and batteries. A confluence of several catastrophic events here could be just as calamitous as what is unfolding half a world away.
Here’s where careful and thoughtful assessment is needed. The BP oil disaster last year required a rethinking of safety procedures and regulations. Likewise, Japan’s struggle with potentially uncontrollable reactors should prompt global reviews of safety procedures. Japanese authorities must be completely clear with the IAEA about the extent of the crisis.
This disaster must not become fodder for nuclear energy opponents to shut down reactors, nor should it allow proponents to blindly insist that this could never happen in the United States.
A more reasonable position is to expend our national brain power to make sure that federal and state procedures to deal with nuclear emergencies are in place and that the companies responsible for the first line of safety don’t cut corners.
This wasn’t the case in the Gulf Coast oil spill; BP and its contractors took shortcuts, and regulators didn’t regulate correctly. The result was environmental and economic catastrophes from Florida to Louisiana. The consequences of a worst-case nuclear mishap are exponentially greater.
America’s reaction to the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 stalled U.S. nuclear plant construction for three decades and left this nation more dependent on fossil fuels, including foreign oil, and less energy-secure.
As our nation helps Japan rise again, we also must learn from that nation’s terrifying experience and make nuclear energy as safe as possible.
Did Japanese authorities react quickly enough to the threat of a reactor meltdown?
Have they provided accurate readings on radiation levels from damaged reactors?
Could a better emergency plan have ensured the necessary electricity and water to cool the reactors?
How do U.S. emergency procedures compare to Japan’s?
(The Dallas Morning News, March 15)