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Nuclear power: There and here

by FRANCES LAMBERTS

In February, the Tennessee Valley Authority abandoned all plans to build to completion two long-mothballed reactors at its Bellefonte nuclear power plant in Alabama.Their construction begun more than 40 years ago and halted in 1988, after an expenditure of $4.6 billion. TVA in 2011 had decided to resume building the units.
The additional projected cost was to be $11 billion.
The TVA may not have foreseen then what assessments for its Final Integrated Resource Plan would reveal in 2015: The Bellefonte reactors aren’t needed to meet customer demand for electricity.
TVA’s decision not to proceed with the reactors came a little before the fifth anniversary on March 11 of the disastrous nuclear power-plant accident in Japan.
As Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, reflects on Fukushima, not one but a series of events unfolded there over a stretch of a few days. All were of the kind which regulators deemed “virtually impossible,” or at least so unlikely that safety measures for protection against them, opposed as too costly by the nuclear industry, were not required.
The supposedly impossible events included an unprecedented-magnitude earthquake that caused a tsunami with waves of “beyond-design” height washing over the plant’s protective sea wall.
A lengthy off-site power loss and failure of multiple emergency diesel generators then lead to core melting at three reactors almost simultaneously. Explosions through hydrogen buildup caused failures of containment buildings and released large amounts of radiation in all directions. Evacuation of almost 165,000 residents living within and beyond the planned-for emergency zone followed.
Only the happenstance of the wind moving out over the ocean instead of south toward Tokyo staved off a need to evacuate the world’s largest metropolis of 12 million people.
As Scientific American reported on March 8, almost 100,000 of the displaced residents still have not been able to return to their homes. More than 1,100 square kilometers of villages, mountains, and forests remain uninhabitable.
Future generations will still be cleaning up the site, yet “exile may be permanent for tens of thousands of people.”
Dr. Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina studied harmful radiation effects on vegetation and wildlife in the contamination zone at Chernobyl. Similar effects are occurring in Japan: sharply reduced bird numbers, many of them with tumors, small brains and eye cataracts, genetic damage in other creatures, and “defects in … almost all fir trees in highly contaminated areas.”
A new report by the Nobel prize winning group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, reveals a 30-fold increase in thyroid cancers in children who had been living in the affected areas.
Physicians estimate there will be more than 10,000 additional, excess cancers among the Japanese people, through the radiation exposure, in future years.
The headline of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper’s editorial on March 10 this year: “Japan should become a society not dependent on nuclear power as quickly as possible.”
One might wish the same for the U.S., that TVA’s good-news decision on the Bellefonte plant find echoes at all other utilities across the country.