Obama: no retreat from “clean nuclear power” plans

The Fukushima nuclear disaster has not caused the Obama administration to rethink its commitment to “clean nuclear power.” Obama’s 2012 budget calls for an additional $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. “The administration’s energy priorities are based solely on how best to build a 21st century, clean energy economy,” White House spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement this week. “That policy is not about picking one energy source over another.” Even as his administration has ordered a review of all US reactors, Obama last week called nuclear power an “important part” of his energy agenda.

Chicago- based Exelon Corp, which operates all 11 of Illinois’ reactors, has been a major campaign contributor to Obama. If Illinois were a country, it would have the world’s 12th-largest number of nuclear power reactors, behind China and ahead of Sweden. No other US state generates more energy through nuclear fission. (Bloomberg, March 23)

Exelon, the country’s largest operator of nuclear plants, issued a statement March 13, declaring that “[o]ur plants are safe, particularly given the different seismic patterns in our regions and the absence of tsunami-type events where we have operations.” But Exelon does not operate either the Diablo Canyon or the San Onofre facilities–California’s two nuclear plants, which remain active and have been found to be on or near geological faults.

Exelon does, however, operate the Oyster Creek plant in Ocean County, New Jersey, which houses a General Electric boiling water reactor–the same basic design of two of the three damaged reactors in the Fukushima plant. “Of course we don’t get tsunamis, we don’t get earthquakes, but we do get hurricanes,” says Norm Cohen of Unplug Salem, a group opposing nuclear energy in New Jersey. “I can imagine a scenario where you have a category five hurricane and just a big wall of water in front of it, and I don’t think we’re prepared for that.”

The Diablo Canyon reactor (operated by Pacific Gas & Electric) sits less than a mile from the recently discovered “shoreline fault,” which scientists are currently studying to ascertain the potential hazard it might pose to the facility. According to state senator Sam Blakeslee, who holds a doctorate in earthquake studies, the fault’s proximity to the plant could “produce shaking far in excess of what’s expected.” Another fear is that the shoreline fault and another intersecting fault could begin moving at the same time, resulting in an even more intense quake. A 2010 report by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that the same Diablo Canyon facility had operated for a year and a half with some emergency systems disabled.

And a nuclear plant need not be susceptible to natural disasters to pose a public safety hazard. In addition to numerous smaller incidents, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island facility (now operated by Exelon) in 1979 and the catastrophic meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 remain two of the starkest reminders of the inherent dangers of nuclear energy. Both were caused by a combination of mechanical failures and human error. (The Guardian, March 23)

See our last post on the nuclear threat.

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