The Safety Concerns of Nuclear Reactors
Nuclear reactors pose serious safety concerns. The history of nuclear power is pock-marked by a deficient safety culture, a nonexistent long-term solution to waste, repeated unintentional radiation releases, and both major and minor accidents. Proponents have revised initial claims of an “inherently safe” technology in the aftermath of catastrophic incidents such as Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl. Those two accidents, along with a continuum of accidents across six decades, reflect nuclear’s fundamentally unsafe nature.
Nuclear reactors are at risk of a terrorist attack. In the final 9/11 Commission Report, Mohammed Atta said that he had considered targeting a nuclear facility in the New York area. More than seven years after 9/11, and despite Atta’s statements, existing nuclear reactors are not required to be protected against an air attack. Moreover, repeated incidents show an epidemic of undertrained and overworked security guards and clearly indicate- the questionable security of nuclear reactors and radioactive materials.
Waste, however, is the real Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. Despite 60 plus years of nuclear operation, no country in the world has found a credible, long-term solution to deal with nuclear waste which must be sequestered from human and water contact for tens of thousands of years..
The accumulation of high-level waste in spent fuel ponds or interim storage sites and the dumping of so-called ‘low-level’ radioactive waste into shallow landfills, pose serious health risks with seepage of radiation into water and soil. The U.S. possesses more than 72,000 metric tons of irradiated spent fuel and another 12 million cubic feet of low level radioactive waste is created each year. A terrorist attack on high-level waste in spent fuel ponds or a natural disaster like an earthquake, such as the one in Japan in 2011, could cause a huge release of radiation into civilian areas.
Some proponents have suggested that waste issues could be solved if the U.S. undertook the policy of reprocessing the spent fuel, but there again are troubling problems. Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel in order to access the plutonium which accounts for about 1% of it, still leaves behind 99% of highly radioactive waste. Reprocessing is also prohibitively expensive and poses serious proliferation risks by separating the bomb-ready plutonium from irradiated spent fuel.
The construction of new nuclear reactors will only exacerbate the existing safety problems. Waste will continue to pile-up in exponentially higher numbers, the reactors must be safeguarded from terrorist attacks which will stretch our security capacity, and the risk of accidents remains high.. In addition, the risks posed by wear and tear of aging reactors have the potential for unintentional leaks of radioactive material such as occurred at the now closed San Onofre in California. Designs for new reactors, presented as “advanced” and “inherently safe” in the push to acquire loan guarantees for “innovative technologies,” appear to have only minor improvements from the standard Light Water Reactor design and raise new safety concerns related to containment structures and thermal output. Ultimately, nuclear power is mired in huge, unresolved safety issues.