Opoien: Japan gives us cause to reconsider US power sources

Jessica Opoien

When disaster strikes, it’s tempting to develop policies based on knee-jerk reactions and a swiftly swayed public opinion. We see it time and time again, from the PATRIOT Act’s post-9/11 approval, to proposed gun control legislation following the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, Ariz.

Emotions are both strong and unsteady in the wake of a catastrophe, and it’s fair to say policy decisions should not be made during such times of tumult. However, it is this fear and uncertainty that causes us to question the circumstances surrounding a disaster, and if these events that call our worldview into question don’t lead to a productive discussion about current policy, then we may learn nothing from them.

The radiation plume from Japan’s Fukushima reactor will likely be too diluted to threaten the health of Californians once it reaches the West Coast, but the danger the Japanese face is very severe, and it has caused Americans to question the safety of nuclear power within their own borders.

We have Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and, most recently, Japan’s nuclear crisis, to remind us that nuclear power does not come without its safety risks. Coal and natural gas both pose dangers, especially in the form of pollution. Even renewable energy isn’t perfect, but we have not explored its possibilities enough to reduce our reliability on our less efficient options.

President Obama has ushered nuclear energy under the umbrella of clean energy, reinforcing his support for nuclear power following the disaster in Japan, but to call nuclear power “clean” is a glaring misnomer. Whether it’s acute radiation syndrome or cancer caused from the ingestion of contaminated food, nuclear disasters are lethal.

And they’re far from impossible in the United States. The Indian Point Energy Center, about 30 miles from New York City, has the highest risk rating for earthquake-related damage, according to the U.S. government — and the liner of the plant’s refueling cavity has been leaking since 1993. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing the safe operation of U.S. nuclear plants, chose to ignore the problem, according to a recent Union of Concerned Scientists report.

That report also noted that at Diablo Canyon, a plant close to four earthquake faults in California, “the reactor operated for nearly 18 months with vital emergency systems disabled.”

“What this calls for is a reassessment of what we have regarded as safe in this country,” said Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a CBS News story. “We can’t sit back and be complacent and say, ‘Well, we’re not them.’ No, we are.”

The same CBS News story said that of the 104 commercial reactors operating in the U.S., 23 of them are the same aging GE Mark 1 model used at Fukushima. In addition, four reactors are near seismic fault lines in California alone.

The effects of a nuclear disaster in the U.S. might not be as catastrophic as the effects Japan faces, but the severity of the situation in Japan is good enough reason to take a close look at the state of power and energy in the U.S.

Dennis Chamberlin, assistant professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, spent several days in Japan. He arrived shortly after the quake for a previously planned work trip. Safe from environmental damage, Chamberlin spoke with locals in the city of Nagoya and picked up on several cultural differences.

Chamberlin said people initially trusted that the government would take care of the situation; an attitude we would be hard pressed to encounter if a similar situation erupted in the U.S. However, by the end of the week, even the most upbeat people Chamberlin had met were beginning to lose confidence in the government’s ability to handle the nuclear disaster.

Japan has no other source of natural energy, Chamberlin said, adding, “The country would collapse if they shut the others [nuclear power plants] down.”

No matter how the government ultimately handles it, it’s clear this will have a longstanding economic impact within Japan — and, by extension, globally. Chamberlin said businesses are not notified when they will be hit by Japan’s energy-conserving rolling blackouts, so as a result, many are forced to close indefinitely in anticipation of the power loss. 

We are fortunate that, in the U.S., we are not forced into this kind of dependence on such a volatile source of energy. However, we are too complacent when it comes to our current energy situation.

When Japan announced it would implement rolling blackouts, the blackouts began 12 hours later than scheduled because of citizens’ conservation efforts, Chamberlin said. 

I find it incredibly unlikely that the same attitude would prevail in a similar situation in the U.S. People could hardly be bothered to give up their showering routines for a day or two when it flooded in Ames in August.

I’m not saying we need to cut down to one shower per week or start doing homework by candlelight, but it’s time for conservation to become less of a scary word in the U.S. And it’s time we become pioneers in renewable energy.

Iowa is already first in the nation in its percentage of total electricity produced from wind power, and second in overall wind energy production, according to the American Wind Energy Association and the U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report. 

But why leave it at wind power? The Staples Center in Los Angeles has 1,727 solar panels installed on its rooftop. Why not do the same with Hilton Coliseum or Stephens Auditorium?

Iowa State is a university of science and technology, by name. Let’s lead the way in reducing dependence on nuclear power, coal and natural gas, and further the nation down a clean energy path.

Now is not the time to push through reactionary legislation. An intelligent conversation and frank debate about this country’s energy sources needs to occur, and the most innovative suggestions should come from the bright scientific minds on this campus.