NUCLEAR power plants have been picketed and pummeled by opponents for decades. Yet they remain a crucial source of energy, and indications are that the political climate is shifting toward public acceptance. Federal regulators are allowing long dormant plants to restart; voters in liberal Massachusetts rejected efforts to shut down two plants in their state. But doubts remain about the safety of nuclear plants, as Bill Magavern describes in an opinion piece on Page 19 today. Just how well-founded are those doubts?
In fact, these plants normally emit only tiny amounts of radiation. Even in the worst commercial reactor accident in the US, at Three Mile Island, a person at the plant gate would have been exposed to no more extra radiation than someone taking a two-week skiing vacation in Colorado.
After some 30 years of operation, no deaths or injuries have been directly linked to radiation from a nuclear power plant - though suspicions abound. The number of unplanned plant shutdowns as a result of some imbalance in the operation, has dropped from an average of 7.4 per unit in 1980 to 2.7 in 1987. Still, tests like those being conducted in the vicinity of the Plymouth nuclear plant in Massachusetts, where a link between plant emissions and cancer is suspected, should be carefully pursued. And the industry should strive for even better performance.
Over the years the industry's tendency to push generating capacity and profit ahead of proven technological know-how instilled many of the doubts about the safety of nuclear plants. It should never be forgotten that while the demonstrable risks from operating such plants are low, the costs of error are great.
And the drive to come up with safer plant designs that are more forgiving of operator error should not let up because some present reactors are being allowed to go back on line.
Today there are 110 nuclear plants in use, providing 20 percent of the US's electric power. Coal plants, spewing out billions of tons of gases, are considered much more harmful to health and environment. Risks are attached to any major source of power. A genuine effort to minimize these risks, such as a proper emergency evacuation system for residents around a nuclear power plant, must be enforced.
But the US economy is going to need any power it can get in the next decade. The nation's electrical load, after minor growth for about a decade, has resumed growing at a 4 to 5 percent annual rate in the last few years.
More conservation is necessary. But so is nuclear power.