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Should We Stop Using Nuclear Power?

Industry Negligence, Government Neglect Undermine Nuclear Safety and Security


Nuclear concept, safe the planet
Thierry Dosogne/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Published June 1, 2011

Germany has crossed nuclear power off its list of future energy options, becoming the first major industrialized nation to take the step of rejecting nuclear power in favor of renewable energy.

Vote in the Poll: Should We Eliminate or Expand Nuclear Power?

Germany Takes Nuke-Free Stance After Japan Nuclear Crisis
The decision was prompted by the Japan nuclear crisis, which started when a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on March 11 damaged several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to a nuclear meltdown and a serious release of radiation. In addition, thousands of anti-nuclear protesters in Germany took to the streets after the nuclear accident in Japan, calling for an end to German reliance on nuclear power.

It will take Germany 11 years to phase out all of its 17 nuclear reactors, although eight of those reactors are already offline and will never be used again as a result of the announcement. The other nine reactors will be phased out gradually, giving Germany time to increase its use of renewable energy from wind, solar and hydroelectric power. Six of the remaining nine reactors will be removed from service no later than the end of 2021; the other three will be taken offline by the end of 2022 at the latest.

Many Nations to Expand Use of Nuclear Power
Germany's decision to abandon nuclear power comes at a time when many nations, including the United States, are planning to build more nuclear reactors. Before the Japan nuclear crisis, the Obama administration was backing a plan to build 100 new nuclear reactors on U.S. soil.

Nuclear proponents argue that nuclear power is clean, meaning that it does not contribute to climate change, and that new technology and industry standards make operating nuclear power plants and disposing of nuclear waste safe and secure.

Japan Nuclear Crisis Holds Lessons for Governments, Industry
Prior to March 11, Japan was often held up as a model of nuclear power done right. Since March 11, the nuclear industry in Japan has become a cautionary tale for other countries.

The Japan nuclear crisis revealed a shocking combination of negligence, inadequate safeguards, design flaws and regulatory laissez faire that led to what is likely to be deemed the worst, and certainly the most expensive, nuclear incident to date. Inevitably, other nations started asking whether their own nuclear reactors could suffer a similar fate-and the answer was "yes."

What happened in Japan is not likely to stop the proliferation of nuclear energy, not unless global public opinion exerts so much pressure on lawmakers in every country that there is simply no way for them to approve nuclear expansion without committing political suicide. At the very least, however, the nuclear crisis in Japan should lead government and industry officials worldwide to re-examine their reactor designs, waste-disposal and storage systems, and existing regulations to ensure their use of nuclear power is as safe and secure as possible.

Even then, however, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that nuclear power can ever be truly safe. If something goes wrong, whether as a result of natural disaster, human error, or a failure of technology, deadly radiation can be released-ruining lives, tainting food and water supplies, laying waste the environment, and costing billions upon billions of dollars in cleanup and damages. Spent fuel and other nuclear waste remains radioactive and potentially lethal for tens of thousands of years-far too long for any current regulation or technology to guarantee the safety of future generations.

Final Thoughts: The Future of Nuclear Power
The world is running out of oil, and governments everywhere are searching for alternatives. Many see nuclear power as a way to meet the rapidly growing global demand for energy, but the benefits of nuclear power carry a potentially high cost-in public health and environmental degradation as well as dollars. Although serious nuclear incidents have been few and far between, their frequency and severity are likely to increase if more nuclear reactors are built near expanding population centers.

Germany has taken a bold step in deciding to abandon nuclear power in favor of safer forms of energy. Other nations may follow. Still, it is almost certain that there will be more nuclear reactors in the world before there are fewer. Let's hope the lessons of the Japan nuclear crisis are not lost on governments that choose to follow that path.

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