Fukushima and Nuclear Power: Playing with Fire

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Nuclear Plants Safe, But Not Disaster-Proof

Our firm has engaged in financial analysis and commentary of biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical device technologies for decades. Thus far, no universally accepted treatment option for radiation sickness and its ensuing healthcare complications has emerged. The effects of radiation exposure are so calamitous that we are compelled to turn our attention from medical treatment to prevention of this deadly disease.

Of the world's reactors, 104 are in the United states, representing 24 percent of the total. Less than a month after the Fukushima failures, Charles Pardee, chief operating officer of Exelon Generation, owner and operator of the largest fleet of U.S. nuclear reactors, and the third-largest nuclear power operator worldwide, testified to a Senate committee investigating the safety of U.S. nuclear plants. In describing the safety of Exelon's nuclear plants, he said: "These plants were designed and licensed to withstand a variety of natural disasters, including earthquakes, floods, tornados, and, where appropriate, tsunamis. Plants are designed to withstand potential disasters based on the most extreme event known in their geographic location, with significant margin added on to that extreme event."

Such confidence flies in the face of facts.

Japan is widely respected for its engineering expertise, social responsibility and dedicated workforce. Yet Japanese know-how failed to foresee or plan for the eventuality of a 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tidal wave. In Fukushima, just as in Chernobyl, the severity of the event was mitigated by small groups of workers who volunteered to stay behind while others were evacuated.

In Japan, the workers who stayed behind to battle the breakdown became known as the Fukushima Fifty. They were the last line of defense at that site. We need to ask what would have happened if this selfless group of people had not been willing to put themselves in grave danger to protect others. And, we need to wonder if a similar group will emerge when another disaster occurs.

As gasoline in the U.S. approaches $4 a gallon, on its way to $5 or more, the power from nuclear reactors becomes more significant to the nation's energy resources. Nineteen percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from nuclear power. As energy needs increase and old plants are decommissioned, new ones will be needed just to maintain the current level of production.

Downsizing or eliminating nuclear power generation from the U.S. energy mix at this time would be extremely costly and have a significant negative impact on the U.S. economy. Yet more than half of the U.S. power reactors have been in operation for 25 years or more, and there have been no new construction sites for nuclear power plants since 1977. With each year, the likelihood of a breakdown in these old reactors increases.

Totally safe nuclear power is unattainable. There will only be safer nuclear power. As Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown, severe nuclear power plant failures are international events and prevention of them must be addressed by an international body.

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