One year after Fukushima, it's business as usual for nuclear industry in Wisconsin

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Bill Christofferson
Monday, March 12, 2012

A year after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused a major disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactors, it’s almost business as usual for the U.S. nuclear industry, which remains bullish about its prospects to expand and build more reactors.

In Wisconsin, home to three of the nation’s oldest reactors with two more just across the Mississippi River in Minnesota, that may pose serious risks to the environment, the economy and to human health.

The reactors at Kewaunee and Point Beach, on Lake Michigan, and at Prairie Island on the Mississippi, all have been operating for at least 40 years and have had their licenses extended until the 2030s.

All are storing deadly high-level nuclear waste right next to their reactors. Because there is no safe, permanent way to dispose of nuclear waste—the industry prefers to call it “spent fuel”—it continues to accumulate on the shores of our Great Lakes and greatest river. It is so dangerous it must be kept out of the environment for hundreds of thousands of years.

Earthquakes and tsunamis are not likely to hit reactors in the Midwest. But no so-called “act of God” or nature is necessary for a nuclear accident, as evidenced by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which were caused by design flaws or human operator errors.

The safety record at Wisconsin’s reactors has not been stellar. Point Beach has had three Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) “red” safety violations, the highest on a four-level scale—more than any other nuclear plant in the country.

An accident at any of the reactors could cause widespread radiation damage, disruption and harm to the environment, crops and health.

Fukushima is a reminder that when there is a nuclear accident, all cost projections and corporate responsibility go out the window. The taxpayers foot the bill for everything: loss of businesses, humanitarian and health impacts, cleanup of contaminated sites, handling radioactive waste. Then there’s the near-permanent loss of important land and water resources; how many generations will it take for the northeastern Japanese economy to recover to pre-accident levels? What would a nuclear accident do to Wisconsin’s economy?

One positive side effect of the Fukushima disaster is that Wisconsin’s law safeguarding nuclear reactor construction remains intact. Bills to repeal the co-called nuclear moratorium—which requires that a nuclear waste repository be operating before a new reactor can be built—had been introduced in four consecutive sessions of the Legislature, but not in the current one, which is ending. With pro-nuclear Republicans in control, even after Fukushima, it might have passed.

Meanwhile, the NRC is moving at glacial speed to order changes based on a study of U.S. reactors it ordered days after the Fukushima disaster. The new rules are just being released, and compliance won’t be required until the end of 2016.

Bill Christofferson of Milwaukee is a longtime activist on nuclear issues and a member of the Carbon Free Nuclear Free Wisconsin coalition, which supports policies to replace nuclear power with renewable energy. Contact him at xofferson@wi.rr.com.

Last updated: 7:58 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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