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Reassessing nuclear power as a clean energy alternative


Last updated 6/27/2019 at 9:19am

HBO recently broadcast a dramatization of the April 26, 1986, Chernobyl accident — at the time, the highest severity nuclear accident in history — a 7 on the International Event Scale. Some 30 people died as a direct result of the accident, thousands more died or are dying as a result of Acute Radiation Syndrome and large swaths of the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were contaminated by radioactive fallout. According to the director of the Chernobyl Plant, the immediate area around Chernobyl will be uninhabitable for “at least 20,000 years.”

I was working at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, when the Chernobyl accident occurred; part of a team conducting an human factors assessment of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear history — a 5 on the Event Scale.

Like Chernobyl, the TMI accident was caused by a combination of factors, chief among them a faulty reactor and control room design, human error, and a deficient safety culture. Also, there was a cover-up at TMI, just as there was at Chernobyl. However, unlike Chernobyl, no one was killed as a direct result of TMI, and the scale of contamination was much less.

Perhaps the biggest casualty of TMI was the public’s trust in nuclear power. After TMI, no new U.S. nuclear power plants were approved for construction for 3 decades. Instead, the U.S. turned to increased use of coal and natural gas, adding tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. Now, the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and rollback of other Obama-era efforts to fight climate change, have dashed the hope for reducing CO2 and other fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, atmospheric CO2 is higher than at any time in the history of human existence. Continuing to pump more CO2 into the atmosphere will transform the Earth into a “hothouse” planet that will make many parts of the globe completely uninhabitable. “Climate refugees” will flock to regions where life is still possible. Neither borders nor walls matter when survival is at stake.

The argument now among those who care, is whether to ramp up our nuclear industry, or concentrate on the development of renewables, like wind and solar, along with the technology to make them dispatchable. CO2 persists in the atmosphere for centuries, not unlike the Chernobyl radiation contamination. So we best get busy.

Richard Badalamente is a retired senior staff scientist from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.


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