The bad accidents everybody thinks of when nuclear power is mentioned are USSR’s legacy to the Ukraine Chernobyl and the recent Japanese Fukushima units. I do not include Three Mile Island because it hurt nobody and only puffed some short-lived gases into the air that affected no one; the containment worked and the reactor for TMI-2 melted into a lower, reinforced area that never has escaped.
Chernobyl was not built like any US reactor, it was graphite blocks with control rods going through it. What maniac designed that I don’t know, but it was like having a high heat source integrated in coal and controlled with mechanical rods. Some techs were there on the weekend to do some testing and screwed up the system causing an uncontrolled transient. The result was reactors with no containment buildings burning, the highly radioactive soot dusting the Ukraine grassland while horrendous radiation levels killed emergency workers at the site. Cows hundreds of miles away ate the contaminated grass and gave radio-iodine milk. The site for miles is still hideously contaminated. Where I worked at San Onofre, we monitored the plume the world’s air currents brought to the US as it went over. A reporter came to the plants, said she’d been to Ukraine and was concerned. She alarmed all of our monitors and radiation counters. I put her shirt in out spectrometer and saw transuranics (reactor isotopes) like crazy. We took her clothes for disposal and let her bathe in a controlled area.
You have read and heard about Japan. They sited those reactors near some of the most active seismic zones in the planet and apparently became complacent. I believe the Nuclear Regulatory Commission here is more attentive here, but also would like to see more Fukushima lessons learned incorporated here, especially the passive cooling. See the Westinghouse Reactors site for info on the new nukes Vogtle in Georgia have ordered; they incorporate new passive cooling tech.
Part of the billion dollar cost of a nuclear plant is the extensive geological investigation, research on all credible threats plus a margin. At Fukushima, they looked at historical tsunamis and thought a 30 foot seawall would more than suffice. They got a hundred foot wave. Same with the quakes. They knew of the quake and wave risk but greatly underestimated the magnitude. Yes, we need to review our assumptions and update them! Nuclear has no room for complacency.
I love solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, wave power but nothing we know can provide us with the intensive source of power we need for heavy industry like nuclear. We have an excellent track record in this country. I saw an NRDC report that several reactors in the US had automatic shutdowns for issues in the last decade like it was a bad thing. Automatic scrams are an important safety feature, we WANT the reactor to shut down when there is an earthquake, a hurricane or other problem – the safety systems worked. I’m a general fan of the NRDC, but wish they would look at facts and not paint the entire technology so monstrously no matter what.
The US has the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), EPRI (Electric Plant Research Institute) and the ANS (American Nuclear Society) to name some entities that help keep our facilities updated and share lessons learned from around the world. Of course in my opinion, a main reason US nukes excel is because most ex-Navy nukes segue into commercial reactors after running submarine and aircraft carrier reactor systems. Uncle Sam beats reactor safety into each and every nuke with a large hammer, rigorous education and exercises. Navy experience and expertise no doubt does make a big positive difference, a resource other countries don’t have. Add that to homegrown nuke physicists and I think we’re doing better than those others.
Obviously I’m passionate about this, sorry for being so long-winded. On Tenembras, the exile planet in my books (BUY THEM), nuclear is the only way to power the critically necessary Breaker that makes terraforming oxygen. Sure they have lots of solar and wind, and fusion is high on their wish list, but the colony planet has to use nuclear for the same reason the US does right now: to meet the huge electrical demands of heavy industry. Go Solar! Go Wind! Go Nuke!