It’s been six months since Fukushima, and U.S. nuclear power plants — especially San Onofre and Diablo Canyon — continue to perform safely and reliably. Credit goes to the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for taking a measured response to the Japanese accident and not shutting down U.S. plants, as some opponents of nuclear power had urged.
The tsunami and earthquake that devastated northern Japan on March 11 caused thousands of deaths, but it was the cascade of failures at the Fukushima nuclear plant that captured the headlines. Never mind that there has not been a single radiation-related fatality from the accident, just as there were none from the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. But in such an environment, there were those whose strident anti-nuclear rhetoric tried to drown out more judicious voices.
Immediately after the Japanese accident, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), longtime opponent of nuclear power and a ranking Democrat on a House subcommittee that oversees the NRC, warned of “another Chernobyl” and predicted “the same thing could happen here.” Contrary to the assertions of Markey, nuclear power in the United States has an excellent safety record. How many other energy industries can say the same? Certainly not coal, with coal-mine explosions and serious health problems from black-lung disease and air pollution. Not the oil industry, with its history of fatalities from oil-rig blowouts and refinery accidents. Gas pipeline explosions have cost lives in California and elsewhere in the country.
The performance of U.S. nuclear plants has greatly improved over the past 20 years. The average U.S. capacity factor for 104 nuclear plants was 91 percent in 2010, compared to 80 percent in 1998 and 66 percent in 1990. Despite a reduction in the number of power plants, the U.S. nuclear industry generated far more nuclear electricity last year than it did in 1998, which is helping to keep the nation competitive in the global economy. The current U.S. nuclear fleet produces the least expensive electricity in the world, costing on average 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Substituting nuclear power for fossil fuels would produce such an obvious improvement in public health that it’s a wonder health authorities do not insist on it. Nuclear plants don’t pollute the air or emit greenhouse gases. In fact, nuclear power accounts for about 70 percent of the carbon-free energy produced in the United States, and it’s being produced safely.
The NRC’s post-Fukushima task force determined that a similar sequence of events to that at Fukushima is unlikely at U.S. nuclear plants. Yet the accident is being taken very seriously, and lessons have been learned from it.
Among the urgent tasks is protection against an extended blackout at a power plant by making sure that back-up diesel generators and batteries are stored in a safe and secure location and that they’re in working order. We now know that the cascade of failures at the Fukushima plant might never have occurred had TEPCO, the Japanese utility, spent a few thousand dollars to safeguard its diesel generators.
Also, vents capable of releasing a potential build-up of hydrogen need to operate reliably, and instruments that show water levels in water pools holding used-fuel rods are being installed to ensure that pools remain supplied with water during accident conditions. But most importantly, potential seismic hazards at individual power plants are being re-evaluated.
While they need to move quickly on safety-related actions, utilities also recognize they must take the time to get the job done right. Precipitous action could result in changes being made that subsequently might have to be reversed when more information becomes available. Precisely that happened after the Three Mile Island accident, and it’s something the nuclear industry doesn’t want to see repeated.
Despite the heightened attention to safety, there are those critics who oppose the renewal of operating licenses at the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants. Shutting down power reactors that account for more than 15 percent of California’s electricity generating capacity would be nonsensical. During the past three years, both plants have supplied power more than 90 percent of the time, and they are safe. So far, of the 104 operating reactors, 66 have won 20-year license extensions from the NRC after lengthy safety reviews. Four nuclear plants have had their licenses extended since the Fukushima accident. Renewing the licenses of the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon plants would show we are serious about energy security and combating climate change.
Ensuring the safety of existing power reactors — together with license renewal and design certification for new nuclear plants — is at the top of NRC’s agenda. Using emission-free nuclear power makes a lot more sense than relying on fossil fuels indefinitely. Nuclear power is safe, reliable and affordable. With proper support, it can continue to supply America with clean energy well into the future.
Edward L. Quinn is a nuclear engineer and past president of the American Nuclear Society.