Our hearts go out to the people of Japan, who have had their lives torn apart by the recent earthquake and the tsunami that followed.
We are also extremely concerned about the unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Based on recent news coverage, significant releases of radioactivity have already occurred and more are possible. The impact that the radiation releases could have on the environment and human health could be catastrophic.
The crisis in Japan is a sobering reminder that nuclear power is inherently dangerous.
There are no guarantees that an accident of the type happening in Japan couldn’t happen here in the United States.
According to the 2000 Census, 135,519 people live within 20 miles of Maryland’s two nuclear reactors. Anyone living within 20 miles of the Fukushima plant that has been evacuated or has been warned to stay indoors.
Like the Fukushima reactors, all 104 U.S. reactors rely on backup cooling systems powered by diesel generators and batteries with limited lifespan. All of them are vulnerable to a catastrophic cooling system failure, the primary cause of the accident at the Fukushima plant.
A combination of factors, including the earthquake, the tsunami, human error, and a power outage triggered the problems at the Fukushima reactors.
It’s not hard to envision how a similar combination of factors could lead to a problem at any one of the reactors here in the United States. There are countless combinations of acts of nature or man, including hurricanes in the South, ice storms in the Northeast, tornadoes in the Midwest, a terrorist attack, human error or unexpected mechanical failure that could fuel a crisis at any nuclear reactor in the United States.
Twenty-three nuclear reactors in the United States are the exact same design as the Fukushima plant. Experts have criticized the ability of this reactor design to contain a disaster.
More than half of U.S. reactors have been in operation for longer than 30 years. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has extended the operating licenses of 59 U.S. reactors beyond the original planned lifetime of the facilities.
Some nuclear reactors are located at sea level, particularly those on the East Coast, such as Indian Point on the Hudson River north of New York City, Seabrook Station in New Hampshire, and Turkey Point outside of Miami, Florida. While these facilities have defenses against flooding, it is conceivable that a large tsunami or hurricane-driven storm surge could damage the plants.
If such an event coincided with a power outage or other risk factor, the odds of a crisis developing would increase.
What planners can’t predict, they can’t prepare for. Because it is impossible to plan for every imaginable contingency, it is impossible to build a fail-proof nuclear reactor.
The consequences of nuclear accidents can be dire. There is no known safe level of exposure to radiation, which can cause health problems from nausea to cancer. Even after a nuclear power plant shuts down, spent fuel remains. There is no safe and permanent storage solution for spent fuel, which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years.
We are struck with grief and deep concern as we watch events unfold in Japan. This accident makes it clear that nuclear power is neither clean nor safe and the risks associated with nuclear power are simply unacceptable.