Globe Editorial

Japan’s crisis should prompt nuclear reassessment in US

March 16, 2011

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Amid the unfolding crisis in Japan, it’s clear why deep anxieties about nuclear power are spreading across the United States. Under normal circumstances, nuclear plants can be a stable part of the energy mix. But when problems at a nuclear plant slip out of control — as evidenced by the devastating explosions, gas releases, and potential meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in the aftermath of Friday’s earthquake and tsumami — the consequences are dire. Workers who respond put their lives at risk; people who live in a wide radius around the imperiled reactor must weigh the prospect of sealing their homes against the natural impulse to flee; the eventual environmental consequences could stretch out for hundreds of miles downwind and many years into the future.

Clearly, the disasters in Japan should prompt reviews of safety planning at nuclear power facilities throughout the United States, particularly those, such as Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, that are in the process of seeking license extensions from the federal government. Alongside some environmentalists concerned over fossil-fuel emissions, the Obama administration had been warming to talk of a nuclear-energy renaissance. But the government should put federal loan guarantees for new nuclear plants on hold until Japanese authorities have a full understanding of what went wrong after the tsunami — and until US regulators assess whether the operators of American reactors are truly prepared for the worst-case scenarios here.

At the threatened reactors in Japan, where the tsunami apparently disabled backup generators needed to power cooling pumps, designers seemingly failed to envision the worst, and did not foresee that multiple safety systems could fail at once. Yet while the magnitude of Friday’s earthquake was nearly unprecedented, the high level of seismic activity in Japan was well known, and tsunamis are to be expected in the event of a major offshore quake.

The lesson from Japan isn’t that all US nuclear facilities must be equally protected against tsunamis; a spokesman for Entergy, the company that owns Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee, was surely right in predicting that there won’t be a tsunami along the Connecticut River in Vermont. Instead, the lesson is that all nuclear plants are designed and operated by humans, and as such can have a variety of flaws that their owners don’t acknowledge — such as pipes at Vermont Yankee that leaked low-level radioactive material underground. The reassurances that Japanese citizens received about the safety of their plants turned out to be unreliable; the same cannot be allowed to happen in the United States.

All of the nation’s major sources of energy have some drawbacks, from coal-mine collapses in West Virginia, to the despoilment of the Gulf of Mexico after an oil-rig explosion last summer, to the deep discomfort Bostonians feel while watching a liquefied-natural-gas tanker squeezing into the harbor. Yet the federal government and the industry must understand that nuclear energy is viewed with unique suspicion. The US nuclear industry, which retreated into the background after the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, has more recently sought financial help from the federal government, but without feeling any pressing need to allay public doubts first. Now that need is more than pressing.

The concrete effects of a US moratorium on federal loan guarantees for new plants — or even on new plants, period — would probably be minor, because the design, approval, and construction process for nuclear power plants takes many years. Allowing that progress to go forward should not be automatic, but a conscious choice informed by state-of-the-art safety planning. The consequences of Japan’s natural disaster would have been staggering enough without adding nuclear accidents to the mix.