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A year after Japan, no nuke overreaction

Members of the media, wearing protective suits and

Members of the media, wearing protective suits and masks, visit the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Feb. 28, 2012). Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kimimasa Mayama

A year after the earthquake-tsunami that killed thousands in Japan and crippled the Fukushima Daiichi plant, there has been no sea change in nuclear power in the United States.

Despite anger and anti-nuclear feeling in Japan and calls elsewhere for closing nuclear plants, this controversial power source will be part of the world's and our nation's energy mix for years. So what we need is a steady course, solving its problems and making it safer, as long as it's around.

In Japan, no human death has been attributed to the accident itself, and the long-term health effects are not yet knowable. But the impact has been immense: Thousands of evacuees have been unable to return to homes in the exclusion zone around the plant. And, with Fukushima and most of Japan's nuclear plants shut down, greater reliance on fossil fuels has increased carbon dioxide emissions.

In this country, like it or not, we still need the energy that nuclear provides. But we also continue to need a politically and scientifically doable, permanent solution for the 60,000 tons of radioactive spent fuel, and we need to use the lessons of Fukushima to make our 65 nuclear plants, with their 104 reactors, safer. Meanwhile, don't expect nuclear plants to quickly provide a lot more than the 20 percent of the nation's power that they produce, but don't expect a reduction.

 

In the year since the event, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has continued its normal process of license renewals for existing plants. As to new plants, just last month, the agency cleared the way to grant licenses to Southern Nuclear Operating Co. to build and operate two new reactors at its existing Vogtle plant in Waynesboro, Ga. They will be the first new-construction licenses that the NRC has approved in more than three decades.

In our region, a Marist College poll released in August showed that in Westchester County, home of the Indian Point nuclear facility, 49 percent of the respondents wanted to keep it open, and only 40 percent wanted it closed. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to shut it, but that's not yet a majority sentiment in Westchester, perhaps because it remains unclear where the replacement power would come from.

Overseas, the political fallout is making itself felt in the presidential election in France, which gets about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. The Socialist Party challenger, François Hollande, wants to cut that reliance sharply. And after Fukushima, Germany closed some of its oldest nuclear plants, on the way to closing them all by 2022.

In the American presidential race, in contrast, the nuclear issue is almost invisible. Republicans have traditionally supported nuclear power -- but so does President Barack Obama, who continues to back billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees for nuclear plants.

But the issue is playing out at the dry technical level of NRC rule-making. Soon after Fukushima, the agency set up a task force to look at what happened and figure out how the industry should react here. Last summer, it came out with a series of recommendations. The agency and the industry are now doing the slow bureaucratic dance of turning those recommendations into actual changes at plants.

 

Critics of nuclear power see the agency's progress as far too slow. Meanwhile, the industry has adopted a plan to add new equipment, such as emergency generators, stored at plants and off site, to run reactor cooling systems in a crisis. For some, that plan seems a useful backup; for others, an industry ploy.

A little more urgency at the NRC would be helpful. So would some sound action by Congress on the spent-fuel issue. But the absence of earthshaking change post-Fukushima reminds us that nuclear power isn't going away. So the only option is to keep making it safer, while we develop alternative energy sources.

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