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San Diego Union Tribune - Science, Not Fear, Should Drive America's Energy Policies


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The 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan on March 11 was more than 10 times stronger than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In the wake of this horrible disaster and the nuclear emergency that ensued, an alarm over nuclear power has once again entered our national dialogue.
Americans haven't experienced this kind of hysteria over nuclear power since the incident at Three Mile Island, in which there were no fatalities and which today safely produces clean energy and provides recreational space. Many hope to capitalize on public fear and build prejudice against the only large-scale, clean-air electricity source available for our future. Science, not fear, should be driving America's energy policies.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a long-standing record of safety. Our robust regulatory infrastructure has accounted for the possibility of a "station blackout" like what occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The Japanese lost on-site and off-site power, which paralyzed their cooling systems. Our plants, however, are prepared for such an event.

Consider the safety standards of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. San Onofre has redundant safety systems to provide cooling for its reactors. These systems are able to avoid combustion should a hydrogen surge occur similar to those that caused explosions at Fukushima Daiichi. San Onofre's facilities have systems that can recombine hydrogen with oxygen to form water and avoid venting hydrogen gas.

We have built our plants based on ground motion criteria where the probability of disaster is so low that, according to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, we meet expectations for the kind of earthquake that could only occur every 7,000 to 10,000 years. Fear-mongers will laugh at those odds and point to Japan. What they don't mention is that the ensuing tsunami that devastated the Daiichi plant was the real cause of the nuclear emergency, not the earthquake, because it drowned their backup generators in salt water. San Onofre's tsunami walls are 50 percent higher than those at the Daiichi plant. Additionally, equipment necessary to safely shut down the San Onofre plant is protected in structures that are built to withstand both seismic and tsunami catastrophe.

Speaking as someone who lives downwind from a nuclear power plant, I feel much better about my children's future having San Onofre than relying on energy that picks our pockets while polluting our air. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has declared there is no credible scenario for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our carbon footprint that does not include nuclear power. America's 104 nuclear plants produce more than twice the electricity as our national output of wind, hydro and solar combined.

Nuclear energy doesn't just power American homes; it creates jobs and stimulates local and national economies. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates private investment in nuclear power plants has created up to 15,000 jobs in the past three years. Additionally, a nuclear power plant produces $20 million in state and local tax revenue annually, money that can fund schools, roads and other state and local infrastructure.

We've confronted this anxiety before. On Dec. 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed in his "Atoms for Peace" speech, "This greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind." Eight years had passed since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a threatening arms race, and yet our president was determined to reconcile what the world thought of the atom's destructive force with the potential benefit it held for all mankind. I believe President Barack Obama has that same opportunity today.

We should all support reviews of the accident in Japan and incorporating the lessons we learn into the design and operation of U.S. nuclear power plants, but we should not tolerate fear-mongering. As of this writing, the death toll as a result of the quake and tsunami in Japan is estimated to be more than 10,000. It could then be argued that living on the coast is much more dangerous than living next to a nuclear power plant. Requiring residents of San Diego's coastal communities to abandon their homes would be as absurd as asking our nation to abandon a clean, inexpensive source of energy.

We need to be intelligent enough to go with next generation designs for nuclear power plants that are even safer than what we have today. It has been more than 30 years since we halted construction of our plants; think of the scientific and technological advances we have made. We should be saying let's build more, let's build new ones.

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