Nuclear risk is just too great

March 19, 2011

Our prayers go out to the people of Japan who must cope with the fear of exposure to radioactive contamination from the nuclear reactor and nuclear waste partial meltdowns in Fukushima following the devastating earthquake and tsunami. The Daiichi nuclear accidents occurred on the eve of the 25th anniversary of biggest nuclear disaster of all, at Chernobyl. The death toll for the 25 years since the catastrophe has recently been estimated at 900,000 in Europe and Russia.

Those of us who have been concerned about the "insurmountable risks" with nuclear power know that a disaster unfortunately could occur here, no matter how reassuring industry and government officials try to be. Recently we learned that the U.S. nuclear power plant at the highest risk for core meltdown due to an earthquake is at Indian Point, less than 50 miles from the 20 million people who live in and around New York City. Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for its closure.

Our own Calvert Cliffs, also near a fault line, is lower down on the earthquake likelihood scale. Yet it has its own very risky variables, as detailed in a recent article in the Washington Post. It is "next door" to a liquefied natural gas plant. It is subject to dangerous weather events such as in 2000, when a tornado with winds of 200 miles that passed in its vicinity. Finally, evacuation from an emergency at the plant would be a nightmare with limited highways to the north and one bridge to the south that can cause 45-minute delays on an ordinary day. Imagine the scene on the escape routes were the sirens to sound the alarm.

In general, risks of a malfunction at a nuclear power plant are greatest for very old and very new power plants. The very old nuclear power plants should be closed rather than the present Nuclear Regulatory Commission pattern of approving all extensions. There should be a moratorium on approval of new plants with their unproven and questionable safety features. Power plants in risky environments (Indian Point, Calvert Cliffs) should be reassessed.

Radioactive contamination from a nuclear meltdown would cause death and destruction long after the memory of the disaster has faded. The land would be left uninhabitable for hundreds of years or longer. These are risks too big to take. We have alternatives: wind, solar, conservation and higher efficiency standards.

Dr. Gwen L. DuBois

The writer is a member of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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