Hard Questions on Nuclear Front
A doctor friend told me about a medical meeting he attended in the '80s, where the subject was AIDS and the speaker posed a question to the medical professionals present.
"If there was one person in the world you desired more than any other and he or she suddenly took a sexual interest in you but you knew that he or she had AIDS, would you make love to that person if you could use a condom, knowing that sometimes condoms fail to prevent the spread of STDs?"
The speaker asked the members of the audience to raise their hands if they would have protected sex with the infected person, and not one hand went up. My friend's point was this: when intelligent people are given adequate information, they tend to make the correct decisions.
I know, of course, that there's no connection between garden-variety sex and nuclear power - or at least I can't think of one that's immediately obvious - but we are now faced with a decision concerning our energy needs and the dangers we face if we can't come up with safe sources of renewable energy.
Watching the reactors explode after the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan hasn't filled me with confidence regarding the safety of nuclear power plants.
The Japanese are able engineers. Their products are among the most reliable. Millions of Japanese cars are on our highways. We gobble up their state-of-the-art electronics because they're dependable. Despite their technical skill, the Japanese weren't prepared for the recent earthquake and tsunami, and the backup systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant didn't prevent a nuclear disaster.
Radiation is turning up in the food chain in Japan, and much of the land surrounding the Japanese plant will no doubt be uninhabitable. There's no telling how many people will develop cancer because of the accident, and the economic cost of the disaster is incalculable.
There are 442 nuclear power plants in service worldwide, another 64 are under construction. Many of these plants are located in countries whose technical know-how probably doesn't measure up to that of the Japanese.
Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Czech Republic, Hungry, India, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan, Romania, the Russian Federation, the Slovakian Republic, Slovenia, and Ukraine - what would happen if a nuclear accident equivalent to the one in Japan occurred in one of these countries? Would they be able to control a deadly release of radioactive material? How far would the radiation spread? How long would the danger last?
Admittedly, the 1979 Three-Mile Island partial meltdown didn't cause much damage. Twenty-five years ago, Chernobyl had to be entombed, but the Russians argue that not many people died, just a few technicians and some volunteers, although the governments of Belarus and the Ukraine give a much higher number. Some estimates go as high as a million deaths.
On Sunday, I drove by the Shearon Harris Plant and watched steam from the cooling tower rising into the clear blue Carolina sky, and I felt as if I were seeing the plant for the first time. I've made hundreds of trips up U.S. 1 since the Shearon Harris opened, but I'd never looked on the plant as a threat. Now I do.
I remember many years ago driving through Raleigh when the rock band The Who was performing at Carter-Finley Stadium. Traffic was backed up in all directions for at least 10 miles, and the stadium holds only 57,000 people. I was sitting in my car by a highway sign announcing that I was on an emergency evacuation route. A 2009 census estimate puts the population of the Raleigh-Durham-Triangle area at 2,726,000. Go figure.
So here's the question: You're going to be given the house of your dreams. Every possible luxury will be provided - servants, fancy appliances, swimming pool, beautiful furniture, any convenience you desire - but the house is located very near a nuclear power plant. Would you and your kids move in?
Stephen Smith lives in Southern Pines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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