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Nuclear Disaster Reverberates in the West

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Sierra Crane-Murdoch | Mar 16, 2011 12:40 PM

When the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded on April 26, 1986 and heaved plumes of radioactive dust across the Soviet Union and Europe, the United States' domestic uranium market slumped into hibernation for nearly two decades. It should come as no surprise, then, that uranium stocks are falling rapidly as Japan’s own nuclear disaster unfolds.

uranium mineOn Tuesday, three days after the Fukushima Daiichi Power Station shook and waves crushed into its backup generators, Dow Jones reported the shocks: Cameco Corp. and Uranium One Inc, both based in Canada and among the world's largest publicly owned uranium companies, dropped 17.9 and 25.5 percent respectively; Australia's Bannerman Resources Ltd. dropped 25.7 percent. It was simple cause-and-effect arithmetic.  Canada and Australia, along with Kazakhstan, are the world’s top uranium producers -- and Japan is a top consumer, accounting last year for 12 percent of the world’s uranium demand.

Meanwhile, the United States' 3 percent contribution to the international market may seem like pittance next to that of its northerly counterpart. But Western states have been scrambling out of the 1980's uranium bust, permitting new mines and processing mills in Wyoming, Texas, South Dakota, Utah, and Colorado. For a while, the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for an expanded domestic nuclear industry, despite its opposition to the Yucca Mountain waste repository, lent momentum to mining companies and energy proposals in the West. Now, though, growing concern over reactor safety could dampen uranium’s resurgence.

Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has begun to wonder if the United States is equipped to deal with a crisis even close to this scale. Eight of the country's 104 nuclear reactors, he points out on his website, are located directly over seismically active regions on the West coast. Twenty-seven sit beside a major fault line that cuts through the Midwest. And 12 located in seismic zones are of the same design as those at risk of meltdown in Japan.

This week, in a letter to President Obama, Markey wrote, "I am concerned that based on recent reports, it appears that no agency sees itself as clearly in command of emergency response in a nuclear disaster." He spoke with the EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and none of the agencies could tell him who would lead the response to a nuclear disaster, or who had enough funds to do so long-term. Nor did they agree on whether or not clean up would adhere to the EPA’s stringent radiological standards. "One agency official essentially told my staff that if a nuclear incident occurred, they would all get on the phone really quickly and figure it out."

Without the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress would not have approved the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, nor would the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act have passed without the hurricane. "It should not require a nuclear disaster in this country to construct the federal response to a catastrophic nuclear event," wrote Markey.

In a hearing today before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chu assured his audience that he would be looking very closely at what happened in Japan and apply those lessons to the domestic fleet.  But that didn't persuade Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who pointed out that Daiichi had numerous fail-safe mechanisms in place, all of which failed.  "With something so potentially destructive as these nuclear rods," she asked, "how can we ever anticipate the worst and be prepared for it?"

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) questioned the logic of investing so heavily in nuclear; in the new federal budget, he said, Republicans had proposed to preserve 20.5 billion dollars in loan guarantees for nuclear energy, while leaving only 1.5 billion for renewable technologies.  "They say they're for an all-of-the-above strategy.  That's an all-nuclear strategy to me."

Analysts have already pointed to regulatory lapses in Japan's case -- Daiichi was not built over solid bedrock and the plant operator hadn't constructed a sea wall high enough to protect generators from ocean waves. But assume the government had strictly enforced these precautions -- would the wall have withstood all the pummeling and the shaking?

On March 13, the New York Times reported that some nuclear advocates had called Daiichi's problems "singular in many ways and stemmed from a natural disaster on a scale never before experienced in Japan."  They likened the disaster to others in the energy industry -- coalmine collapses and oil spills.  But the Japanese know better than anyone: nuclear crises are pervasive, largely invisible, and of an entirely different scale.  They linger in the landscape, as well as in the body, crippling a community, or a country, for generations to come.

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a High Country News intern.

Photo of Wyoming uranium mine courtesy of Flickr user, SkyTruth.

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