The east coast of the United States has taken center stage recently in the natural disaster realm; it’s still grappling with unexpected floods, widespread power outages, crisis weary residents and loads of stranded travelers. But in our attention to Irene, let’s not forget that just days before the storm, a 5.8 earthquake—centered in Virginia and felt across the eastern states—provided us with a particularly significant opportunity to examine the dangers of nuclear power plants.
Following the earthquake, the North Anna Power Station, a nuclear facility with two reactors operated by Dominion Virginia Power, lost electrical power. While the plant was able to safely halt operations and use three diesel backup generators to keep the radioactive cores cool (a fourth diesel generator failed, according to Reuters), it still raises questions about the safety of nuclear plants in disasters.
Earlier this year, two separate power plants in the Midwest were threatened by unusually widespread flooding along the Missouri River. At the Fort Calhoun Power Station, just south of Omaha, plant workers spent months using elevated decks to enter the plant, which narrowly avoided being completely flooded. The Cooper Nuclear Station in southeast Nebraska also had what was described as an “unusual event.” The rising waters of the Missouri disrupted the Cooper plant’s sludge-waste discharge ability, resulting in sludge overflowing the waste pond.
All of these problems are minor events, really, compared to the disaster in Japan’s Fukushima prefect, where an earthquake that damaged a large plant was followed by a tsunami that flooded it. The ongoing disaster there has resulted in a large-scale evacuation that may, for all practical purposes, be permanent.
In our rush to find energy sources other than fossil fuels, it’s easy to think that nuclear power is a solution. The problem is that, although accidents are rare, the consequences are extremely high. The damage in Japan will take generations to fully quantify—and because the planet is a single system, that damage is not going to be limited to one place.
And now, in less than six months time since the Japanese tsunami, we’ve seen three—yes, three—“unusual events” that, but for some good luck, might have caused similar damage in this country.
Here in California, we are susceptible to both earthquakes and tsunamis. As we noted in a March editorial shortly after the disaster in Japan, we’ve got two nuclear power plants—Diablo Canyon and San Onofre—built on a coast that is, indeed, likely to have both an earthquake and a tsunami.
This is neither the time to panic nor the time to be content with the status quo. Part of our energy crisis has nothing to do with peak oil or global warming; it is about our own unwillingness to examine new ways of living that take less energy and our own resistance to paying more for sustainable energy.
What will it take to get a sane, safe and sustainable energy policy from both the American people and our leaders?