Nation needs to act now to address energy challenges

The double shock of last week’s 5.8-magnitude earthquake and the weekend landfall of Hurricane Irene, alongside the ongoing recovery in Japan from the earthquake-and-flood crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, have once again placed nuclear safety at the forefront of the collective American mind.

Georgians have more reasons to consider this, as serious planning for the first new nuclear reactors in the United States in a generation is under way at Plant Vogtle, just outside Augusta.

Fortunately, in terms of the data on nuclear safety outcomes, the U.S. is one of the most prepared and secure nations when it comes to nuclear infrastructure. The disasters that plagued Russia and Japan in the past 25 years can be attributed to the inefficiencies in their systems and planning.

With Chernobyl, a totalitarian society with no accountability led to a series of catastrophic human errors, terrible reactor design and the worst nuclear power disaster in history. At Fukishima, there were inadequate planning and blurred lines between Japanese regulatory agencies and energy companies.

In the U.S., by comparison, we have a transparent process that puts the majority of the decisions associated with nuclear plants in the public spotlight. Our vibrant environmental movement provides the needed scrutiny to ensure that tough questions are being asked. It also has led to a more stringent regulatory environment.

This isn’t to say there aren’t challenges and concerns that must be addressed. Our existing nuclear facilities are aging with half of them more than 30 years old. All of the facilities rely on pipes, wires and tubes that are subject to wear and tear over time.

Additionally, our leaders need to reach a conclusion about how to best dispose of the waste produced by the facilities. One of the primary radiation-generating hazards at Fukushima stemmed from the partial meltdown of the spent fuel rods being stored in cooling pools rather than be permanently disposed, which is exactly what we are doing here.

It also will be imperative that future plant designs and event planning raise the bar in terms of earthquake protection. The strength of last week’s earthquake did push the boundaries of their planning infrastructure. The North Anna, Va., nuclear plant, for instance, was built to withstand a 6.2 magnitude event. We had a 5.8 quake, which is a little less than one-third the strength of a 6.2 quake on the Richter scale.

But the cost associated with ensuring that our nuclear facilities can withstand powerful earthquakes and damaging storms is minimal when compared with the consequences in the event of a failure.

Disasters aside, our situation is eerily similar to another challenging time in our energy history. The U.S. economy was bogged down and mired in an energy crisis in the late 1970s. The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 resulted in political fallout — but not significant radioactive fallout — that ultimately halted the construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S for almost three decades.

Since then, the energy industry has largely adhered to the status quo. However, things are beginning to change.

The Obama administration recently authorized federal loan guarantees of $8 billion toward the first new nuclear reactors in more than 25 years, a significant encouragement for the expansion at Plant Vogtle. This is no doubt related to the competence of Plant Vogtle’s operator, Georgia Power, but also to concerns over oil dependence and climate change issues with our substantial use of coal in energy generation.

With a fully functioning green energy economy still a generation away, we’re faced with tough choices on how to move forward. These choices must be confronted because we are steadily heading toward an energy black hole in which demand outstrips capacity.

These challenges can be met if we act now. With decisive planning and follow-through on energy policy, as well as nuclear and environmental safety, we can maintain the energy production expected of a leading nation with a high standard of living. If we do not meet these challenges, we will inevitably fail with stark consequences for the next generation.

Dr. Cham Dallas, director of the Institute for Disaster Management at the UGA College of Public Health.

Posted August 30, 2011.