Are Nuclear Power Plants in the US safe?

An article I read yesterday reviewed the risk of earthquake damage to nuclear power plants in the US and ranked the top 10 at risk of damage.  Overall, the plants located in the highest earthquake zone (California) are fairly low on the list because they were designed to withstand an earthquake.  No. 1 is located in Buchanan, New York, about 40 miles north of NYC and ranked so high because of newly discovered fault lines since the nuclear reactors were built.  No. 2 on the list of most risky is less than 50 miles from my apartment.  No. 9 on the list is even closer to the university in California I attended for 6 years.  While in CA, we heard a little bit about evacuation routes if a disaster were to occur.  A similar list rates the risks from multiple disaster types for US nuclear power plants.  Given the odds provided in these articles, I’m less fearful of natural disaster compared to other potential attacks on our reactors.

Many people would probably be surprised to hear that the US gets about 20% of our electricity from Nuclear Power.  We have 104 operating nuclear reactors (at 65 facilities) and about half of them are more than 30 years old.  A handful of new plants are approved or under construction and expected to come online over the next few years, but building a plant can take 10 up to years or more.

Here is a list of US nuclear reactors operating at the end of 2010, and gives their age range.  The Union of Concerned Scientists also has a map showing the reactor locations, and you can clink on individual locations to get more detailed information on the reactors and potential safety concerns.

Japan has a total of 55 reactors that create about 35% of their electricity supply.  The  Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant damaged by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami has a total of 6 reactors and is about 40 years old.  A combination of major earthquake and a major tsunami damaged the support systems and power source to maintain cooling of the reactors.  The extent of damage and the likelihood of limiting radiation leaks is still unknown today (update 27 March 2011).  I commend the workers on their efforts to regain control of the overheating reactors and hope they are all able to safely return to their families when this crisis is over.

Because of this threat of radiation leak from the damaged Fukushima plant, we will have a renewed discussion on the cost benefit analysis of nuclear power.  A fundamental part of the process has not yet been addressed in the US, where/how to store radioactive waste until it no longer posses a threat to the environment.  Temporary storage options are filling up and a long term solution is needed.  This event also has triggered a new emphasis on durability testing of the support systems, such as reactor cooling, after major events such as earthquakes.  More detailed information about the new efforts now underway can be seen in this video from the TV news program energyNow.

A funny story, maybe 1 month ago an older gentlemen at my office was complaining to me that my generation is not out protesting the construction of new nuclear power plants in the US.  My reaction was that my generation doesn’t seem to have an opinion one way or another on nuclear power (given our demand for energy for things like ipods, AV equipment, air conditioning, etc., and our general concern for environmental pollution, we do not have a suggestion better than nuclear power) and it’s not part of our culture to protest on the streets (as seen in places like Egypt the new method of voicing our opinion uses modern technology of Facebook and twitter to protest).

In the meantime, I’m thankful for the decision to evaluate the safety of existing nuclear power plants, and I hope further discussions address the risks and incomplete parts of the nuclear energy process.  Wikipedia’s page on US Nuclear Power includes a table of cost and location for accidents at nuclear power plants.

In our search for clean, reliable energy to support the growing demand, nuclear energy is not a simple answer to the problem.  If the general public wishes to reduce the use of nuclear power, maybe they will also find ways to reduce the overall electricity consumption to support that reduction (a zero cost and zero pollution solution).  Every individual doing what they can to reduce energy consumption, and especially waste, is the first step in this fight against damaging impacts on the environment and risks to human safety.  So what can we sacrifice in order to align our actions with our priorities?

Understanding and Predicting Earthquakes

What are other bloggers saying about Nuclear Power:


One comment on “Are Nuclear Power Plants in the US safe?

  1. Pingback: When will Earthquakes in Japan stop? Understanding and Predicting future Quakes | Enhance The Human Experience

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