Just when President Obama declared his commitment to nuclear power, the second worst nuclear disaster ever occurred in Japan. And now, once again, there is a shadow over the nuclear industry.

We have come full circle.

In the 1950s, nuclear technology was seen as the magic wand that would solve all of the world’s energy problems. Then came the escalating cold war and 70s, when nuclear proliferation became a concern. Many scientists, including my mentor and professor John Holdren, who is now the top science advisor to the president, opposed nuclear technology, not only because of its terrorism potential but also because of risks of accidents.

Unfortunately, the catastrophic scenario that scientists had long feared unfolded at the Daiichi plant in Japan on March 11, 2011. Proponents of nuclear power claim that backup systems and redundancies make nuclear power safe, yet it was the backup system that failed in Japan. Pumps that were supposed to provide cooling water to the reactors after control rods were inserted to stop the nuclear reaction simply failed. The reason? Diesel could not reach the pumps because its storage tanks were damaged in the earthquake and tsunami. Engineers tried to stop the reactors from experiencing a total meltdown, yet radioactivity was released into the atmosphere. They also tried to prevent spent fuel from exploding because it too was without water. Placed in cooling pools atop reactor buildings, the spent fuel lost its water and over-heated when reactors caught fire, exploded, and the roofs of buildings were destroyed. The spent fuel itself then became prone to risk of fire and explosion and had to be sprayed with water from helicopters.

Is this a script of some Hollywood B-movie?

And why was the spent fuel sitting on top of reactors?

You may well ask.

The answer some U.S. engineers have given is that this was a 40-year-old plant which did not enjoy the latest technology. They claim that we would never have such a problem in the United States because our new plants have more than one backup system. Also, the new plants have diesel tanks located underground. But in case of an earthquake, which would shift and crack the ground, can scientists be a 100 percent sure that underground tanks would not be damaged?

Besides, most American nuclear plants are not new. These plants were licensed before opposition to the technology mobilized and, in many cases, built in the face of public protests. Many have had long-standing problems. The Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey had a radioactive leak due to corroded pipes and damaged containment vessel a week after it was re-licensed in 2009. The Indian Point plant 40 miles north of Times Square has leaked radioactivity several times into the Hudson River. The Yankee Vermont plant has had many mishaps, such as the collapse of a rotted wooden cooling tower, dropping of atomic waste from a crane, even missing fuel rods. Yet, since 2000, the industry has successfully gotten authorization to re-license 50 of the 104 nuclear plants in the United States. The re-licensed plants, some of which are already 40 years old, will run for another 20 years. Why? New plants, in spite of the Obama administration’s blessing and corresponding loan guarantees amounting to 36 billion dollars, are too prohibitively expensive to construct.

Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, California’s two nuclear plants, which sit near earthquake faults, could also potentially be running for decades even though they are already old. It is said that the plants are not designed to withstand an earthquake of 8.9 magnitude and that in case of such a calamity, radioactivity could spread across the entire nation. During the Chernobyl disaster, wind currents carried contamination across Europe within days, and even to North America in less than two weeks. Yet, the radioactive content of the Chernobyl plant was small because it was new. The California reactors, on the other hand, contain bigger quantities of radioactive material since they have been operating for decades.

Waste fuel sits in cooling ponds around the Diablo Canyon plant next to the coast,  still waiting to be taken away and recycled. It is unimaginable to conceive what would happen in case of a major earthquake. Waste could well spread all over the surrounding area.

Some experts claim that one of the problems is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency responsible for licensing and safety oversight of the industry, is an impotent bureaucracy. Others claim it is in bed with the operators – excuse the metaphor. What with the revolving door policy that pervades all of our public life, how can the NRC exercise effective regulation, oversight, and enforcement?

Ironically, Obama has himself called the NRC a “moribund agency.”

Hopefully, by the time this article goes to press, a major nuclear meltdown would have been averted in Japan. But even if the situation is contained, it may take decades of clean up for the area to be hazard-free and safe for the public.

The Japanese accident should be a wake-up call. Nuclear technology is unlike any other because, even though accidents are rare, when they happen, the potential for catastrophe, deaths, and long term environmental and health damage remains unacceptable. There remains a dead zone in a large area around Chernobyl because the time required for the decay of the nuclear material is hundreds of years.

Why then are we still embracing this 1940s technology when cleaner, small scale technologies such as distributed solar and wind generation are available?

Nuclear power is the product of an old school, “big is beautiful” mentality. Unfortunately, the military industrial complex is so wedded to large scale energy generation that it proposes nuclear energy as an alternative to the problem of global warming caused by electricity generation from coal and natural gas.
But should we justify the pursuit of one harmful technology in place of another equally harmful one when we have access to smart, small scale, local sources of power?

Or should we change the paradigm and start thinking of an entirely new way of living?

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visitwww.saritasarvate.com

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