Nuclear power remains the frontier that we all wonder whether we should have ever ventured into. It is the frontier that has remained a wilderness after decades of exploration; a morass of incensed politics, popular fears, and persistent hopes. It is now equated in the minds of millions with Fukushima.
It is now one year since the crisis began. Little captures the world’s eye like a nuclear crisis; not war, not famine, fair enough—some revolutions—but little else. The tsunami was devastating, and our hearts went out to Japan. But it was only a matter of days before we were stocking our fallout shelters and buying iodine pills.That’s the lift of nuclear power. It activates the imagination like few other frontier swamps. Nuclear fallout, radiation, meltdowns, massive reactions, mutated cells, steel doubling in on itself in a warped Promethean display of physics. As the Fukushima 50 (and then 180) diligently worked to stabilize the reactor, the world watched, and everyone started talking about nuclear power.
For various lengths of time. Here in the United States, that length of time was around twenty minutes. Reenergized activists got busy, newspapers turned up a handful of plants with dangerously lackadaisical safety practices, and TV shows reminded New Yorkers that they lived less that 50 miles from Indian Point. And the nation sighed. Preoccupied by Tea Party politics, the ongoing recession, or whatever else, our domestic status update on nuclear power lasted all of a news cycle.
But here’s what we should have been talking about: 5 different nuclear power plants (there are 104 reactors in the US) had emergency shutdowns last year. Another one was discovered to have run an entire year with some of its emergency systems activated. As the NRDC notes, if one reactor “lost both primary and backup power for even a matter of hours, it could lead to a meltdown and an airborne radioactive plume.”
Here’s a map they put together showing the nation’s nuke plants and how comparatively irradiated you would be if they melted down: (see the NRDC for a full map)
We should also probably be talking about what we’d do if these things did meltdown, since, oftentimes, the evacuation plans we’ve got are horribly inadequate: “fantastical” may be better, say critics. After Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has promised an extensive survey of every reactor in the United States, and the American Nuclear Society shows that emergency planning is lacking, too.
Meanwhile, Obama has said that despite Fukushima, he continues to support expanding nuclear power. The NRC recently approved two new plants for construction in Georgia—the first new nuclear reactors to get the green light since 1978, after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl sufficiently rattled the public. Nuclear power, then, is lumbering along in the United States at roughly the same trajectory it was a year ago.
The discussion carried on elsewhere, however, in unhushed voices. Outside of Japan, the debate was loudest in Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. Spurred by Fukushima, popular opinion of nuclear power evaporated at breakneck speeds, especially after students, activists, and environmentalists rose up and demanded an end to nuke plants. Governments responded, and the nations are now en route to bring all of its nuclear reactors offline in the coming decade. The weight of the risks was too much for the body politic.
Japan is of course the most radically altered by the crisis. Here's how: Read on to Part Two,