Soapbox Philosophy: Uneasy about science of nuclear power
Op-Ed · June 28, 2013

About 20 miles east of here, Wilton grappled with the idea of a nuclear energy plant near their city.

MidAmerican Energy wanted to build the plant, spending $8.8 million in ratepayer dollars to conduct a feasibility study. Of course, there were many opposed to the idea ever since it was proposed three years earlier. Earlier this month, MidAmerican Energy abandoned the project.

The 1970 expansion of the Clean Air Act gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to develop and enforce regulations regarding air pollution. Energy companies trying to meet new requirements, and out of concern that fossil fuels were depleting, turned to nuclear energy instead of coal.

Of the 68 nuclear power plants active in America today, they run 105 reactors. Of those, 51 reactors were built in the decade after 1970, including Iowa’s: The Duane Arnold Energy Center, the only nuclear plant in Iowa, was commissioned in Palo in 1975.

Public opposition to nuclear power grew after the disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. There has not been a new nuclear power plant commissioned since 1996, but two are under construction right now and the EPA has other applications.

The U.S. government likes nuclear energy. In 2010, Congress created a $55 billion taxpayer-backed fund to loan to companies building nuclear plants.

But Americans cannot help but worry about plants close to where they live. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Palo plant had in 2010 about 145,000 people living within a 10-mile “evacuation zone.” That area also includes 35 public schools and 10 hospitals.

NRDC also concluded that inside a 50-mile “potential contamination zone” are 699,000 people, 279 schools and 204 hospitals. West Branch is inside that 50-mile radius.

And if the Wilton nuclear plant had been approved, West Branch would have been inside two of those “potential contamination zones.”

Like anyone, I like breathing clean air and saving money on my electric bill. However, I have my concerns about safety and containment.

The arguments in favor of nuclear plants seem to rest on the absence of hard data: Like inconclusive proof of its ability to cause cancer in residents downwind of a plant. That’s like me rummaging through all the pennies at the bank, finding every year but 1973 and concluding that the U.S. mint must not have printed any pennies in 1973.

But the argument ignores the fact that nuclear plants have numerous safeguards in place for the pure fact that radiation does, in high doses, cause burns, cancer, internal bleeding and other serious illnesses. Enough radiation can kill you.

Scientists have recorded lots of data about what certain levels of radiation can do to a person, and we have a very good grasp of how to keep it under control. We know about numerous effects of sudden, short doses and long-term exposure.

We’ve come a long way since the 1970s and 1980s. Still, I find myself uneasy about nuclear power plants close to where people live.

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