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Zachary Papas: Nuclear power remains safe source

Published: Friday, March 25, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07

Nuclear power is among the cleanest, safest and most efficient energy sources in the world.  For nearly half a century, nuclear power has been an integral part of the United States' energy plan.

Twenty percent of the electricity in our country comes from nuclear power.  Despite the tragedy in Japan, its presence in America should remain prominent.

The safety of nuclear power has come to the forefront of public concern since the events in Japan.  While the situation at the nuclear plants at Fukushima Diiachi has yet to be fully resolved, so far there have been no deaths directly linked to the accident and none are expected to occur.

There have been two major accidents in the history of nuclear power:  Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.  Both incidents have been thoroughly analyzed and the flaws that caused the accidents have been designed out of our modern reactors.  That is, reoccurrence of these calamities is physically impossible.

In fact, according to John Poston, professor of nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University, the new generation of reactors on slate in the U.S. is much safer than the current Japanese reactors at Fukushima.

"Keep in mind that the reactors we're planning to build in the U.S. are very different from those [in Japan].  They have passive cooling [safety features], they have fewer pumps, fewer valves and they rely less on offsite and onsite power to shut them down.  They can cool themselves," Poston said.  "So we've come a long way since 1979 [year of the Three Mile Island accident] in terms of designing and understanding the physics and the principles we can use to keep those reactors safe."

All power options have their dangers — some more than others.  Frederick Best, professor of nuclear engineering at A&M, believes we as a society must weigh the costs versus the benefits of our different energy sources.

"Tens of thousands of people die annually in the U.S. from automobile accidents, yet we accept this death rate in comparison with the benefits of our automotive society," Best said. 

"Everything a society does involves a trade-off among risks.  Our civilization is based on using power.  All sources of power generation have risks.  

Burning coal produces green house gases that we feel contribute to global warming and produce the associated negative effects.  Wind, photovoltaic, hydro, etc. each has associated negative consequences.  As a society, we must decide among alternatives."

Consider the number of deaths from various energy sources in the past four decades.  The sole fatal nuclear power accident in the last 40 years occurred at Chernobyl and directly resulted in less than 60 deaths.  Three Mile Island, the U.S.'s only major nuclear accident, produced no deaths.  In comparison, Switzerland's Paul Scherrer Institute calculated that since 1969, more than 20,000 people died due to severe accidents in the oil supply chain and more than 15,000 fatalities directly resulted from accidents in the coal supply chain.  This results in a rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production that is 18 times worse for oil than for nuclear power.

Experts and state politicians alike still have faith in nuclear power. Last week members of the nuclear engineering community and a handful of county judges spoke to the State Legislature in Austin, lobbying for the continued development of new units at the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant and the South Texas Project Nuclear Power Plant. Poston cited a benefit to the overall well-being of the citizens of Texas.

"The Legislatures in the state of Texas should not be swayed by what's going on in Japan and we should go ahead [with the building of the new units]," Poston said.  "It means more jobs; a better economy; it means a better standard of living for people in Texas; it means a lot to the economic progress in Texas and our need for electricity."

Instead of using the situation in Japan as a hindrance to the growth of U.S. nuclear power, we should see it as a valuable lesson. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu agrees.

"The president and the administration believe we have to be looking very, very closely at the events in Japan. We have to apply whatever lessons that can be and will be learned from what has happened and what is happening in Japan," Chu said. "We will use this opportunity to learn as best we can."

The engineering world is an ever-changing realm, and it is the duty of engineers to make the necessary adjustments when problems arise.  There was a moratorium on new nuclear power construction as a result of the Three Mile Island incident.  The United States nuclear industry came away from that hiatus with a safer and more efficient way to produce nuclear power.  We will treat the Japan incident in the same manner.  United States nuclear power will come away better, stronger and safer.

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