07/25/2011 02:12 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

Waking Up to a Nuclear Nightmare

Last week, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission met to hear recommendations about the future of America's nuclear plants after Japan's nuclear crisis. The nuclear industry, which just a year ago had been wildly optimistic about the prospects for a "nuclear renaissance," is now hobbled by concerns over the health, safety and financial ramifications of the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima. After being told for decades that nuclear power is safe, reliable, clean and cheap, it's worth carefully considering how the fantasy of a nuclear dream gave way to the reality of a nuclear nightmare.

The most recent reminder of that terrible reality came when an earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, causing fires, explosions, and three complete core meltdowns. 770,000 terabecquerels of radiation were released in just the first few days of the crisis, equivalent to 40 percent of the total radiation released from Chernobyl. Further consequences remain to be seen, as plant operators are still struggling to bring the reactors to a complete shutdown and contain radioactive material, but alarms are already being raised about high radiation levels at elementary schools dozens of miles away. Tens of thousands of evacuees will likely never return to their homes, and radiation spread around Japan and the surrounding ocean is causing major food and health concerns.

The public had previously been roused from its nuclear fantasy when a routine safety check gone wrong at the Chernobyl power plant led to the worst nuclear disaster to date, forcing a quarter million people to permanently evacuate their homes and leaving thousands to struggle with the tragic legacy of cancer as the result of high radiation exposures. Twenty-five years after the disaster, the Chernobyl nuclear reactors lie inside a shaky and structurally unsound concrete sarcophagus at the center of the Exclusion Zone, awaiting the day hundreds or thousands of years from now when the dangerously irradiated area will be safely habitable once more.

And more than thirty years ago, mechanical and human errors woke the public from a pro-nuke slumber when they caused a partial core meltdown in a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, forcing 140,000 people to evacuate and initiating a cleanup that took 12 years and cost $973 million.

Each of these tragic disasters is a poignant reminder of just how dangerous nuclear power truly is. And there are more minor incidents as well, the risks that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission willfully accommodates by rewriting safety precautions and relaxing regulations: cracked tubing, corroded pipes, broken nozzles, rust, and more. Not only could these factors cripple a reactor in the event of an emergency, but an Associated Press investigation uncovered leaks of radioactive tritium at 48 of 65 sites, with some leaks at hundreds of times the allowable Environmental Protection Agency standard. Among those leaky reactors is the Palisades Power Plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which reported tritium levels above the EPA standard in 2007 and again in 2009. I can see the steam plume of the Palisades plant from the backyard of my father's farm; now I worry that my family might drink irradiated water from that same reactor.

Plutonium-239 has a half life of 24,000 years, but the human memory operates on a far shorter span. As recent tragedies become more distant, it is too easy to fall back on false illusions, even if they are haunted by the ever-present specter of another possible nuclear disaster. If the public is lulled back into the nuclear fantasy of "safe, reliable, clean and cheap," what will be next? A disaster at the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska, surrounded by Missouri floodwater? Meltdowns at the Diablo Canyon or San Onofre nuclear plants in California, both located near a major fault line and the Pacific Coast?

Questions and headaches for the nuclear industry

It is past time to wake up and face the hard truths of this recurring nuclear nightmare. After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the nuclear industry is struggling against stiff headwinds in the United States as both old reactors and proposed new reactors around the country meet growing opposition.

A case in point: the recently failed proposal to construct new nuclear reactors in Iowa. In order to pay for the new reactors, MidAmerican Energy wanted legislation that would raise electricity rates. MidAmerican would have kept the money even if it never followed through on actually building the reactors. It was a shoddy deal for ordinary Iowans, and yet the proposal attracted little attention, sailed through committee consideration, and was expected to easily pass the state legislature.

After the Fukushima crisis, things began to change. Just as national support for the construction of new nuclear reactors dropped, Iowans expressed their strong opposition to the MidAmerican proposal, with 75 percent against the bill. Friends of the Earth helped mobilize public sentiment by running print and television ads criticizing the bill and encouraging Iowans to express their concerns to the state legislature. Not surprisingly, state legislators started having doubts as well. "We got the details and realized that the rate payers really have to have all the risk in this thing," said State Senator Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo). Despite MidAmerican's extensive lobbying, the Iowa state legislature adjourned on July 1 without passing the bill, a major setback for the bill's supporters.

This is just one setback among many. Various proposed nuclear plants in Texas have been scrapped, mainly for financial reasons. Exelon withdrew plans to construct a twin-unit nuclear plant in Victoria County, Texas in order to focus on wind energy instead. After ground was broken for new nuclear reactors in Georgia and South Carolina, construction prospects were impeded by serious questions about the safety of the Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to be built at those sites. Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had previously been expected to approve the reactors by the end of summer, significant delays are likely after flawed calculations in Westinghouse's submission "led to more questions," according to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

Existing reactors are facing challenges as well. The Vermont legislature voted 26-4 to shut down the aged Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which contains a reactor similar in design to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, although the decision is being disputed by a lawsuit from the plant's operator, Entergy. And Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York recently reaffirmed his intentions to shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant, less than 30 miles from New York City.

Real problems need real solutions

Nuclear power currently supplies 19 percent of all electricity in the United States. Nuclear advocates argue that nuclear is preferable to fossil fuels, but this is a dangerous and misleading argument. There are better options, like renewable energy and increases in energy efficiency.

The challenges for the nuclear industry are even steeper elsewhere. Germany, led by the conservative Angela Merkel, has published a plan to invest heavily in renewable energy and close all of its nuclear reactors by 2017 - without the construction of new coal plants or significant rate hikes. Similarly, Switzerland has pledged to phase out its nuclear reactors by 2034 and make up the difference entirely in renewable energy. Even though nuclear power is currently the source for 30 percent of Japan's energy, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has expressed support for a complete nuclear phase-out. Already, 35 of Japan's 54 nuclear plants have halted operations in the wake of the Fukushima crisis, and "setsuden" conservation measures aim to make up the difference by reducing energy consumption by 15 percent this summer. Furthermore, billionaire Japanese businessman Masayoshi Son has unveiled plans to build solar farms around the country, which would triple Japan's use of renewable energy to 30 percent of the nation's total by 2020.

Altogether, these efforts demonstrate that with innovation and political willpower, an end to nuclear energy is not only possible, but entirely feasible. The idea that nuclear energy could be a safe solution to the world's energy needs was never more than an empty dream. Clearly, nuclear is just another nightmare problem. It's time to wake up to that awful reality and start focusing on better answers.