It has been some time since most Americans have seriously thought about nuclear energy and the possible fallout from an accident. The crisis at Three Mile Island in 1979 is now the stuff of history books as an entire generation has no memory of the fear people felt from the partial meltdown at the Pennsylvania nuclear power plant. Concrete domes and stacks loom ominously but inconspicuously on coastlines and dotting landscapes across the country. The nation was jolted back into nuclear reality this week as reports streamed in from Japan describing the deteriorating conditions at nuclear power plants there that were damaged by the devastating 9.0 Richter scale earthquake that rocked the nation. Now, many Americans are thinking about their own safety and vulnerability as they imagine what would happen if a similar breach occurred at a nuclear plant in close proximity to their home.
Most Americans are unaware of how these facilities were approved, the companies that operate them or the regulatory agency that oversees their operation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency that regulates commercial nuclear power plants works beyond the view of most citizens, as do most state level utility authorities that are responsible for regulating local energy companies. The Commission is governed by a board of five commissioners, one of whom, William D. Magwood, IV,is an African-American. The video below is an overview by Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko of the NRC’s performance and accountability results for 2010.
The science behind nuclear energy is also a mystery to most citizens, as many people immediately conjure up science-fiction imagery of nuclear power. The NRC provides a brief overview of pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors, the two types of power reactors that are in operation at nuclear power plants in the United States.
What will surprise many Americans is just how many nuclear power plants are in operation in the United States and their relatively close proximity to major population centers. For decades now energy companies have been constructing plants as nuclear energy has been pushed as a clean alternative. Licenses have been issued for these plants with little public reaction or comment. There are now 104 nuclear plants which generate 20% of the nation’s electrical power. Between 2007 and the current calendar year there have been 21 applications before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the construction of 30 power plant units. Given President Obama’s push for clean energy alternatives, there will likely be additional nuclear power plants on the drawing board in the near future.
The warning by the United States for American citizens in Japan living and working within 25 miles of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to leave the area is particularly telling given the close proximity of some of the nuclear power facilities in this nation to major metropolitan centers. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides a complete list of power reactors but there are several facilities of note that are within a 30 mile radius of midsize and large cities. They include the Indian Point Nuclear Plant in Buchanan, New York that is 24 miles north of New York City, the Salem Nuclear Generating Station in Hancocks Bridge, New Jersey situated just 18 miles south of Wilmington, Delaware, the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant located 20 miles south of Raleigh in New Hill, North Carolina, Louisiana’s Waterford Steam Electric Station just 25 miles west of New Orleans in the town of Kellona, Limerick Generating Station in Pennsylvania about 21 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the infamous Three Mile Island Nuclear Station sitting 10 miles southeast of the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg, and Vogtle Electric Generating Plant that sits 26 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia. It is questionable if any of these communities is prepared to handle a Japanese type emergency; particularly given the downsizing of police and firefighting personnel in the face of budget crises.
What is not known is the emergency preparedness of these facilities and nearby communities. While there are procedures in place and strict protocols, the events in Japan serve as a warning that unanticipated events, such as an earthquake, can overrun even the best laid plans. The chaos that occurred in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina suggests the nation’s ability to cope with a significant natural disaster is minimal. As Congress will undoubtedly debate the safety and efficiency of the nation’s network of nuclear power plants in light of the crisis in Japan, residents of communities in the shadow of these facilities might be well served to take a crash course on nuclear power and become familiar with emergency procedures. Whatever the outcome of the emergency overseas, the debate over nuclear power is certain to heat up in the United States with industry lobbyists and environmental activists lining the halls of congressional office buildings to plead their case. Much like the calm before the storm in pre-Katrina New Orleans, citizens need to use this opportunity to make their voices heard before an unfortunate and tragic accident occurs that will again test the will of Americans.