Japan's disaster fuels debate on nuclear power plants here

As hydrogen explosions rock nuclear power plants in Japan and response teams struggle to contain the contamination, no one can stop nuclear power's public relations fallout from drifting across the United States.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Monday that no “harmful levels of radioactivity” are expected to float over from Asia or wash up on our shores. But Wayne Gerdes, a nuclear power advocate from Wadsworth, is concerned about the Japanese disaster's effect on public opinion in the U.S.

“What I'm worried about is how this will slow the nuclear movement,” says Gerdes, 49, a former employee at the Braidwood nuclear power plant in Will County who now works as a writer covering the auto industry. “Nuclear power's comeback is probably going to be placed on hold for a while at a time we need it most. With the price of fuel going up, electric vehicles are going to be on the road, and we are going to need nuclear power.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, cited the Japan disaster in calling Monday for an immediate moratorium on new nuclear power plants in the United States. In his State of the Union two months ago, President Obama proposed building as many as 20 nuclear power plants, the first new plants in three decades. Illinois' two U.S. senators, Democrat Dick Durbin of Springfield and Republican Mark Kirk of Highland Park, told radio stations Monday they won't let this tragedy cut off discussions about the future of nuclear power.

The politics stemming from Japan's disaster may decide nuclear power's fate in this country. But Mitchell T. Farmer, a principal nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, says scientists will use the tragedy as a learning tool, just as they made safety improvements after accidents at nuclear plants in the 1970s and '80s. Farmer, like everyone else quoted in this story, mentions the tremendous loss and the hope for recovery in Japan before talking about energy policy in this nation.

No one is predicting a similar nuclear disaster in Illinois, but nuclear power opponents say creating nuclear energy always carries a risk, and no one can say we would do a better job of handling an emergency than Japan or that we would be able to pay for a cleanup.

“We are on a slippery slope,” says Mary Olson, director of the Southeast Office of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a networking center founded in 1978 for activists and environmentalists concerned about nuclear power. She notes that Illinois is in the seismic zone of the New Madrid fault that some say is overdue for a major earthquake, is prone to tornadoes and has 11 nuclear reactors, a handful of which are of the same 1970s design as the troubled reactors in Japan.

But Farmer said the age of the reactors wasn't a factor in the disaster caused by the “double whammy” of a record earthquake and historic tsunami.

And a statement released Monday from John Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon Corp., the parent of Warrenville-based Exelon Nuclear, one of the major owners and operators of U.S. nuclear plants, says, ”Our plants are safe, particularly given the different seismic patterns in our regions and the absence of tsunami-type events where we have operations.”

He says the plants are protected against earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, but “still we watch, we learn, and we will work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other policymakers, as well as industry colleagues, on what, if anything, should be done to apply what can be learned from this unprecedented situation.”

There are no plans to build new nuclear plants in Illinois, and the state has a moratorium that won't allow new plants until someone comes up with an acceptable disposal plan for nuclear waste. But state Rep. JoAnn Osmond, a Republican from Antioch, has introduced a bill to lift that ban.

Since we dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, the idea of harnessing the awesome power of nuclear reactions fascinates and frightens. In 1979, gas prices were soaring, President Jimmy Carter was preaching alternative energy and nuclear power proponents were starting to woo American consumers. Then a nuclear plant disaster movie, “The China Syndrome,” ratcheted up our fears days before a real accident at the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Penn., made us confront those safety concerns.

By the time that disaster, with no reports of fatalities, had faded from the public conscious, a much greater catastrophe at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in 1986 resulted in dozens of immediate fatalities and lingering radiation nightmares such as cancer and birth defects among people who lived in Ukraine.

We don't yet know the entire damage caused by Japan's nuclear crisis. But last year, 48 coal miners were killed in accidents, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Those deaths, however, don't threaten people miles from the mine, Olson notes.

Concerns about nuclear safety “may well delay expanded use of nuclear power worldwide,” concluded Michael W. Golay, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commenting on The New York Times website. “If so, the greatest nuclear-related harm of the Japanese earthquake may be the lost opportunities for nuclear power in reducing climate change.”

Exelon nuclear power plants in Illinois, like the Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station, are protected against earthquake, floods and other disasters, Chairman and CEO John Rowe said. Associated Press
Exelon nuclear power plants in Illinois, like the Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station, are protected against earthquake, floods and other disasters, chairman and CEO John Rowe said. Associated Press)
Exelon nuclear power plants in Illinois, like the Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station, are protected against earthquake, floods and other disasters, chairman and CEO John Rowe said. Associated Press)
An accident at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pa., was the first major setback for nuclear energy. Associated Press
The closed Chernobyl nuclear power plant looms over abandoned houses in the town of Pripyat, which sits inside a contamination zone. A 1986 nuclear catastrophe caused dozens of immediate fatalities and other lingering health problems. Associated Press