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Keep nuclear power threats & benefits both in perspective


The nuclear problems at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, where four of six reactors are in some state of meltdown, exploding, releasing radiation, couldn’t have come at a worse time for Georgia Power, now working to get the green light to add two new nuclear reactors to Plant Vogtle in Burke County.

In an unbelievable case of understatement, one Georgia Power official said events in Japan put the firm in an “uncomfortable spotlight.” It probably is difficult to get much support for adding nuclear capacity here as Japanese officials report radiation levels 4,000 times the legal limit in water around nuclear power plants there, following the tsunami and earthquake.

Still, it remains important for the public to stay informed and keep an open mind concerning nuclear power’s potential and threats as Southern Company, who owns Georgia Power, tries to gain final approval for a nuclear upgrade here.

Currently the United States has 104 nuclear reactors operating at 65 power plants. During 2008, nuclear reactors produced 19.6 percent of American energy consumed. Reactors continue to be considered a viable source for electric power into the future, especially by those opposed to further coal burning.

The country has not broken ground on any operating nuclear reactors since 1974, so the two in the works for Georgia are something to take notice of.

Public perception remains that nuclear power plants are incredibly dangerous due to radiation involved. And, truth be told, we wouldn’t want one in Jasper, though a military research reactor in the Dawson Forest many years ago apparently caused no ill effect.

The most famous nuclear plant in America, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, remains famous for the worst nuclear power plant accident in U.S. history. In 1979, an accident at the plant produced something like the ongoing situation in Japan, where a reactor overheated and could not be cooled.

Three Mile Island’s Reactor Number 2 was destroyed, but no death or injury to any plant worker or anyone in the nearby community was reported.

The most famous nuclear power plant in the world, of course, is Chernobyl in the Ukraine. Like Three Mile Island, it is only famous for the disaster that happened there. In 1986 it experienced a full meltdown and explosion,  sending radioactive material into the atmosphere. At Chernobyl, 31 deaths were attributed directly to the radiation release, and 237 people were treated for acute radiation sickness.

More than 20 years later, the number of cancers and deaths, birth defects or lesser health effects caused by the escaped radiation is hard to define. Numerous studies have been conducted on the people who live there. Results have been inconclusive on whether any negative health impacts occurred after the initial accident.

The Japanese nuclear disaster is still unfolding. In the wake of the tsunami and earthquake which destroyed much of the surrounding countryside, it will be hard to differentiate between solely nuclear problems and those related to the natural disaster. But it’s pretty clear the natural disaster has killed, injured and destroyed on a scale the radiation threat is not likely to match.

As Georgia Power moves forward with its plans, let’s keep in mind that the history of deaths, cancers and accidents relating to nuclear power is far from the disaster-waiting-to-happen scenario commonly portrayed. That most Americans don’t even know where our 104 nuclear reactors are located is a testament to their benign history.

In the past 20 years, nuclear plant technology has assumedly progressed. New plants should be more safe and efficient. Georgia Power has a responsibility to see plants here designed incorporating lessons learned in Japan. But there is no reason to go overboard, given a tsunami should never reach Plant Vogtle, nor seismic activity match that in the Pacific.

Sensible precautions from the long history of safe nuclear power plant operation in the United States as well as new safeguards deemed necessary after Japan should both be considered in regard to proposed reactors for Georgia.


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