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  • March 16th, 2011

Living in a Glass House

By Joel M. Vance

In case you have been on vacation in another solar system, you may not know that Japan has been flirting with nuclear disaster because of an earthquake that damaged a supposedly earthquake-proof nuclear plant.
This in a nation that still is the only one on earth to have experienced first hand the full horrors of runaway radiation (with the possible exception of Russia’s Chernobyl disaster).
Hark back a couple of years to the presidential campaign.  John McCain made fun of Barack Obama’s suggestion to save gasoline by properly inflating tires.  He wanted to build nearly 50 more nuclear power plants in the United States.  He announced this plan at Monroe, Michigan, site of one of our nation’s two most frightening nuclear incidents.
The other, of course, was Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, but less well known (and no less scary) was a 1966 near meltdown at the Fermi One reactor in Monroe.  The United Auto Workers had sued to block construction of the plant, citing the horrific prospects if there was a meltdown—but lost the case in the Supreme Court, 7-2.
In the case of the Fermi suit, dissenting Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black wrote that nuclear power was being treated as “a lighthearted approach to the most awesome, the most deadly, the most dangerous process that man has ever conceived.”
Had the Fermi plant exploded, a distinct possibility under the circumstances of the accident, the Great Lakes would have been contaminated, Detroit would have become a vast graveyard and people within a radius of several hundred miles would have been exposed to deadly radiation.
On June 20, 2008, Sen. McCain said in my home state Missouri that if elected, “I will set this nation on a course to building 45 new reactors by the year 2030, with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants to power the homes and factories and cities of America,”
Missouri utility Ameren UE has proposed to build a second nuclear plant to go with the one it currently operates near Fulton.  The formal proposal was scheduled several years ago, but the plant probably would not be operational until at least 2019.
The existing Callaway Nuclear Facility never has had a serious incident, but has been shut down when equipment failed or was thought to be in trouble—a pump in the cooling system failed in 2001, for example.
In March, 2008 a water pipeline from the Missouri River ruptured, causing erosion, but no nuclear contamination.  But the incident does point out that aging nuclear plants can wear out—Callaway dates to 1984, making it 27 years old.
Consider that Japan’s woes were caused by an earthquake and that Missouri’s Bootheel is astride a major quake fault.  Chances are a quake to rival the Bootheel one in the early 1800s that still is the largest ever to strike the United States probably would not reach as far north as Callaway, at least with catastrophic results—but then Japan thought it also had all the bases covered.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is worried about geriatric nukes.  In a study, UCS found this: “The Wolf Creek plant in Kansas and the Callaway plant in Missouri were built as identical twins, sharing the same standardized Westinghouse design. But some events at Callaway are reported to be 10 to 20 times more likely to lead to reactor core damage than the same events at Wolf Creek.”
Callaway produces about 25 percent of all the power generated by Ameren UE and it has rated highly over the years in safety and operation.  Not to suggest that the plant is unsafe, but if UCS is worried and they are the knowledgeable ones, then everyone else also should be cautious.
Nuclear energy is a frightening but irresistible entity—it’s like a light socket that attracts the interest of a small boy, just to see what it would feel like to stick his finger in it.  Like a pet lion it’s fun until you tease it too far.  Think of Chernobyl.  The Russian nuke exploded in 1986, releasing between 30 and 40 times the radiation of the two World War Two atomic bombs.
Radiation spread as far as Canada where levels were six times higher than normal.  No one will ever know how many died directly or indirectly from the released radiation but estimates range in the tens of thousands and cases of thyroid cancer still are being attributed to the blowup.
Given the frightening potential of a nuclear plant accident, Sen. McCain’s dismissal of Barack Obama’s suggestion to save oil as an alternative to drilling for more smacks of what the two Supreme Court justices said about treating nuclear energy with “a lighthearted approach.”
The last thing the country needs is a lighthearted approach to something that could send us to eternity.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael Patrick

    March 25th, 2011 at 8:05 am


    Excellent analysis, Joel.

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