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Facing Up to Nuclear Risk


Nuclear accidents like Japan's Fukushima crisis are scary. So is a future without nuclear power

A German group frequently meets in front of nuclear plants wearing T-shirts that read "aussteiger," or dropout. On Mar. 12 they had planned a protest in front of Neckarwestheim 1 and 2, reactors that squat together on the Neckar River near Germany's border with France. Germany gets more than a quarter of its power from nuclear reactors, but the group was not attempting to improve safety features or tighten regulatory control; they want Germany to drop out of nuclear power altogether.

They may get their wish. As news of explosions at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant reached Germany, the rally swelled to tens of thousands, and protesters ran a human chain from Neckarwestheim 30 miles south to Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg. Two days later, mindful of looming elections in the region, Germany's conservative chancellor, Angela Merkel, agreed to power down five of the country's oldest reactors—including Neckarwestheim 1—pending a national safety review. Previously Merkel had reversed her predecessor's plan to end the country's nuclear program by 2022. A lot has changed since Mar. 11.

It's hard to disagree with a nuclear safety review. Switzerland, China, and the U.K. have announced them, as has the Obama Administration. Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wants the U.S. to go further and suspend permits for any reactor in seismic areas. These steps all seem sensible and may prove smart politics. They also fail to address the problem. America does not want for safety assessments of nuclear power; what it lacks is an honest public debate about it. Anyone who would take reactors off line has to explain what carbon-free alternative would replace them. Anyone who would keep them has to explain why they're not being replaced over time by newer plants with more safety features and, more important, has to admit that there is no such thing as a zero-risk nuclear plant. As tempting as it is to poke fun at the German Left, America suffers from a different strain of the same denial: The Germans, at least, have a plan, even though it's unrealistic. We've ignored the problem altogether.

"People in democratic societies," says Bill Kinsella, "don't know how to talk about a phenomenon as complex as nuclear energy." An associate professor at North Carolina State University, Kinsella has spent his career studying how societies communicate about nuclear power. Nuclear reactors, he says, seem too potent and mysterious for an ordinary person to understand, so citizens tend to respond in two ways—they either reject nuclear power out of hand (Germany's Green Party) or defer to expert opinion (the U.S., at least for now).

Experts and safety reviews can inform our decisions, but they can't make them for us. David Okrent, who advised the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on reactor safety for 20 years, points out that reactors are designed for only a set of defined events. "The early nuclear reactors weren't designed for tornadoes," he says, "until one came along in Arkansas, and then we thought, 'we gotta design for tornadoes.' It's not easy to be all-knowing."

Reactor risk modeling, like financial risk modeling, he says, stops short of accounting for truly rare events. While working for the NRC, Okrent spoke to seismologists, whose opinions diverged only on low-probability events. "It's hard to quantify a rare event. When you get to rare events, the design is usually up-to-but-not-including." This is where the experts begin to arrive at irreconcilable differences of opinion. It is up to us, the consumers of energy, to reconcile them.

If President Obama's safety committee were to heed Representative Markey's advice, it would have to tell Arkansas to power down its Russellville Nuclear 1 plant, which lies 180 miles from the New Madrid Fault line—and supplies 30 percent of the state's power. We don't need a safety review to tell us this; we need to decide whether we're willing to accept the risk of a New Madrid earthquake. If we aren't, we need to decide what will replace Russellville Nuclear 1. Will it be a newer reactor, farther away? A coal-fired plant?

For almost 30 years, America has been able to put off answering these kinds of questions. The years after the partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in 1979 saw a convenient détente between market forces and antinuclear activists. New plant orders slowed, then stopped. Since then, however, a new generation of reactors has begun to come on line overseas, reflecting the lessons of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. These newer reactors feature "passive" safety systems that protect the reactor without human intervention, reducing the risk of operator error. One of them, the EPR, under construction in France, Finland, and China, is designed to withstand the impact of a jetliner.

This is not to say the new plants are without risks—risks we haven't yet grasped are waiting for us to stumble upon. But in assuming that all reactors, in all places, carry the same risk, we've indulged in a spurious calculation; we've decided that fewer reactors mean less risk. Germany made a more conscious decision to avoid new plants. Its Green Party made opposition to nuclear power an electoral issue; once in power in the late 1990s it made good on it. But both countries are now stuck with the same problem. Germany and America get 21 percent and 29 percent of their power, respectively, from nuclear plants. They haven't broken ground on a new one in decades. A little more risk creeps in with every new year of denial.

Michael A. Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that four factors can explain the way a country looks at nuclear power: resources, technical competence, the role of public opinion in policy making, and the relative power of green parties. The first spike in reactor builds came after the oil shock of 1973, and France, in particular, embraced reactors as a defense against oil boycotts. But that country's love of nuclear power is failing to live up to its reputation; in January of this year a survey found 46 percent of the French saw "mainly drawbacks" to nuclear power, a number that has nearly doubled since 1994. "It's part of the myth that French people are fanatics about nuclear power," says Mycle Schneider. "It's just wrong." Schneider, an independent nuclear industry consultant near Paris, sees public opinion beginning to diverge from France's technocratic elite. On nuclear power, she says, "you have political party consensus, not social consensus."

China, unburdened by a green party or the need for social consensus, has vast nuclear ambitions, with 28 plants under construction, almost half of the world's current builds. "China's building a bunch of different designs, trying them all out," says Malcolm Keay, senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies. China has high safety standards, he says, but their waste standards are "different." Officials of both the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese National Nuclear Corp. have confirmed that nothing that's happened in Japan will change China's plans. More to the point, in the Mar. 15 China Daily, Xu Mi at the China Institute of Atomic Energy wrote that the country's younger nuclear plant fleet is safer than Japan's, which mostly came on line in the 1970s.

These distinctions matter. Even if, for the sake of argument, we ignore the threat of climate change, it's still hard to imagine a future in America without nuclear power. That we halted production of plants a quarter-century ago was an accident, but it's become an excuse, a way for our democracy to avoid complicated decisions. It's no longer enough to be for or against nuclear power. We have to be for or against BWRs and PWRs, the AP1000 and the EPR. (These are different technologies and brands of reactors; voters will need to learn to tell them apart.) And we will need to look squarely at the truth that there is no such thing as a zero-risk reactor, decide how safe is safe enough, and, when we do, we will have to build some plants. Events of the past year—in the Gulf, in the mines of West Virginia, and now on the coast of Japan—have again taught us that there is no energy without risk. At the very least, as the four reactors in Fukushima smolder, they should compel us to make some tough calls.

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