Nuclear Energy: Rewards or Risks?

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Bob Hiden, Phillip Musegaas, Dr. Neer Asherie and John Durso

“Approach nuclear energy with respect not fear,” Dr. Neer Asherie, physicist at Yeshiva University, told attendees at a forum hosted by the Local Summit, May 17th at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.

He said that nuclear energy offers both risks and rewards. A respectful, rational approach can help in sorting them out. Broadly speaking, he said, the main nuclear benefits are clean energy, no greenhouse gases, and self-sufficiency from unfriendly foreign energy suppliers. The main risk, evident from the recent Fukashima Daiichi earthquake/tsunami tragedy, is explosion and radiation. The challenge is to utilize the benefits while minimizing the risks.

Ironically, the forum, which was titled “The Truth About Nuclear Energy,” actually revealed that there were many “Truths” and also many “untruths.”  And it is not easy to know which is which.

For example, Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director of Riverkeeper, Inc., said he has three concerns about the nearby 40-year-old Indian Point nuclear facility in Buchanan. He is worried  that public evacuation in event of a plant  emergency is impossible. He said storage of highly dangerous spent nuclear fuel rods is inadequate and that there is a real possibility of a severe earthquake on the faultline near the facility.

John Durso, Executive Director  of the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, an energy policy coalition of utilities, labor unions and businesses, cited studies and reports that seemed to refute all three of  Mr. Musegaas’ concerns. He also noted: Indian Point directly and indirectly supports thousands of jobs, it provides up to 12% of New York State’s electricity, and there is no practical way of  replacing this source of electricity in the immediate years ahead.

Bruce Schearer, speaking from the audience, said the opposing views created confusion.  He suggested that it might be a good idea for the energy industry and possibly the state and national governments to get together and conduct definitive studies as to the risks and rewards of nuclear energy as part of a broad national energy policy.

In his early comments, Dr. Asherie explained how in a nuclear reactor neutrons bombard and split an atom in a process called fission. This  releases enormous heat and sets in motion additional atom splitting in a spiraling chain reaction. The chain reaction in an atomic bomb takes place in an instance, but in a nuclear plant it is controlled.

The problem at the failed Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, he explained, was not the nuclear chain reaction. The crisis developed because the waters of the onrushing tsunami shut down the electrically activated cooling systems, resulting in over-heating, explosion and radiation dispersal.

He added that in his view, the biggest concern with nuclear plant safety is not so much its day- to- day operation, but rather, the fact that no country has as yet established a long-term way to safely store radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods.

Mr. Musegaas indicated that his main concern is that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is “not up to the task of regulating the industry.” The implication is that the Commission is too cozy with the industry it regulates.

In regard to emergency evacuation at Indian Point, Mr. Musegaas said that the Commission has required a plan for evacuation of residents within a 10 mile radius. This would involve removing 300,000 people and is not really feasible given the routes that now exist. He pointed out that this same Commission also recommended that U.S. citizens in Japan should keep clear of a 50- mile radius around the Fukushima Daiichi plant. If this latter standard was applied to Indian Point it would involve the evacuation of 20 million people in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

He also asserted that Indian Point has resisted spending the $50 -80 million needed to put spent fuel rods in safer so-called dry casks which use passive air rather than water supply to keep the rods cool.

Mr. Durso said there is a great difference between the potential danger at Fukushima Daiichi and Indian Point. The Japanese facility is huge, with six reactors. Indian Point has two working reactors.

He said if the local plant were closed there would be a substantial energy shortage  in the tri-state area and energy costs could rise up to 150%. He said there is no existing plan as to where, how and when to build a replacement coal-fired or gas-powered plant.

Mary Lee Berridge, co-president of the Local Summit, said that little mention had been made of how to reduce energy demand and how to make use of  solar, wind and other renewable energy generation. The three speakers agreed that developing renewable energy and reducing energy demand were important steps to take.

Dr. Asherie said that our energy dilemma requires all individuals to step forward and play a role in finding solutions. “How many of you in the audience own two cars?” he asked. Most hands went up. “How many of you would be willing to give up onecar knowing that it would help the environment and lessen energy demand?” He looked around the room and very few hands were up.

The above program was hosted by the Local Summit, an informal community council that endeavors to make the Mamaroneck-Larchmont area a better place to live for everyone. Its public monthly meetings on topics of community concern are held at 7:45 a.m. on the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.

— Written by Harold Wolfson

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