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Only danger with nukes are flaws in mining laws

| August 17, 2005 12:00 AM

To the Editor:

In an August 3 essay in The Western News, Rhonda Claridge briefly states the case against nuclear power. It seems it is dangerous because there might be a meltdown of a nuclear reactor and nuclear depleted fuel elements are hazardous because they emit intense radiation.

Both of these statements are true but incomplete as stated. The facts about commercial nuclear power plants are that they are very safe indeed. For 40 years 103 nuclear power plants in the U.S. produced 20.5 percent of our electricity. Over this period of time not a single person in the U.S. has been killed by emitted radiation from one of these plants. This is a safety record that no other industry in the U.S. even comes close to.

Over this period of time we did have a meltdown. It was in the Three-Mile-Island nuclear plant in 1978. Two thirds of the core melted and intense radiation in the core pressure vessel resulted. But none escaped into the public domain because the plant was designed by the nuclear engineers to protect the public from such a catastrophe. The engineers celebrated the accident because it proved once and for all that the public can be protected in the event of a meltdown of the core.

Where do the anti-nuclear groups get their information? It certainly is not from the safety record of the industry. It must be from the movies where meltdowns and the China Syndrome are a means of generating intense suspense.

It is difficult for nuclear scientists and engineers to deal with this untoward bias which almost takes the form of a secular religion. If nuclear reactors were dangerous in practice, their safety record would show it. When you finally corner them in the debate on this issue, they shout "meltdown" and "Chernobyl!" There is not the chance of a snowball in hell that the Chernobyl reactor could have been licensed in the U.S. because of its glaring design and flaws. Since that accident the Russians have adopted U.S. safety criteria for their nuclear power plants.

The second issue Rhonda Claridge emphasizes is that nuclear waste is hazardous to your health. True, but irrelevant since nuclear waste is always handled in such a way as to remove the hazard. Each power plant in the U.S. stores its depleted fuel elements in canals 20 feet deep on site near the reactors as temporary storage until the completion of a deep underground permanent geologic site. Twenty feet of water over the fuel elements is sufficient to protect the workers at the plant from radiation. Storage in the permanent underground facility one-half mile deep is sufficient to reduce the radiation at the surface to essentially zero for all time.

The closest the public ever gets to radiation sources is right in their own hospitals. The modern hospital is full of radioactive medical isotopes used for diagnosing disease. There is no undue exposure for the public because the personnel are trained to safely use the materials. Again the hazard is removed by training and safe practices designed by the engineers producing the radioactive isotopes. A hazardous material is only a hazard when it is incorrectly used and stored.

The pollution and hazard of the tailings and sludge ponds at the uranium mining sites is a serious problem, but is not the result of reactor engineering negligence. It exists because of flaws in the mining laws or the lack of them in the past. Mining laws need to be enforced in the present time to prevent these non-environmental practices.

Bob Grimesey