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Tom Weis

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Japan's Nuclear Nightmare a Wake-Up Call for US

Posted: 03/21/11 04:49 PM ET

As the horrifying nuclear catastrophe in Japan threatens to contaminate an entire nation with radiation, now is the time for the United States to reassess the safety of nuclear power here at home, particularly given that 23 nuclear reactors in the U.S. use the same "Mark 1" reactor and containment design as Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

As reported in the New York Times, General Electric began marketing the Mark 1 reactors in the 1960s as "cheaper and easier to build -- in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure." But as early as 1972, the New York Times reports an Atomic Energy Commission safety official "recommended that the Mark 1 system be discontinued because it presented unacceptable safety risks" (the smaller containment design made it more susceptible to explosions). More alarm bells should have gone off in the mid-1980s when, according to the New York Times, an official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "asserted that Mark 1 reactors had a 90 percent probability of bursting should the fuel rods overheat and melt in an accident." This begs the critical question of why the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is recommending a 50-mile evacuation zone for Americans living near the Fukushima Daiichi plant when it only recommends a 10-mile evacuation zone for nuclear plants here in the United States.

Repeated attempts by government and industry officials to portray nuclear power as "clean" and safe" do not make it so. Remember when they tried to fool us into believing it was "too cheap to meter?" The terrifying explosions and fires destroying the Fukushima Daiichi plant put the lie to these disingenuous claims. And don't think what happened there can't happen here. Reactors in California, including the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, are sited not only near major faults, but also near the coast, where they are similarly vulnerable to tsunamis. In New York State, the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which also sits on a fault line, is so susceptible to earthquakes that Governor Cuomo has called for the plant to be shut down.

Other countries are heeding the wake-up call from the worse nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Germany has wisely decided to temporarily shut down seven older nuclear plants while it studies a more rapid conversion to renewable energy. China is suspending new nuclear power plant approvals and expediting inspections at existing plants. Spain has ordered a review of its nation's nuclear plants. And Israel is now seriously rethinking nuclear power. Not so here. The Obama Administration seems more determined than ever to enable a new generation of U.S. nuclear plants with $36 billion in loan guarantees. I have a better idea: how about we say no to this dangerous technology and provide loan guarantees to struggling Americans who really want to help secure America's energy future with solar, wind, geothermal and efficiency upgrades to their homes and small businesses?

We've all heard the nuclear lobby's claims that growing energy needs, combined with a rapidly heating globe, give us little choice but to develop more nuclear power. What may surprise you is these fallacious arguments are actually given credence by U.S. renewable energy trade associations. By consistently failing to demonstrate - and fight for - the true potential of solar, wind and geothermal energy to meet America's electricity needs, these green energy trade associations are reinforcing the myth that we need more nuclear power, when in fact we don't. If there were ever a time for bold leadership from the renewable energy sector, that time would be now.

No energy source is without its impacts, but I have never heard of a catastrophic "solar explosion," "wind spill," or "geothermal meltdown." If we learn nothing else from Japan's nuclear nightmare, let it be this: nuclear power is simply not worth the risk.