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Large majority says nuclear energy is safe

More than eight in 10 respondents to this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll say nuclear power is safe. And more than half think it is very safe.

The poll was conducted as the Japanese government declared an emergency at one of the country’s nuclear power plants and ordered thousands evacuated after Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami shut down its reactors. Emergency workers were forced to leave the nuclear power plant when radiation levels soared.

The United States has 104 nuclear plants that generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. One of them, the R.E. Ginna plant, is 20 miles east of downtown Rochester.

For 30 years after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, no new nuclear power licenses were granted in this country. In January, President Barack Obama proposed an expansion of nuclear power and $36 billion in federal loan guarantees to build up to 20 nuclear plants.

Some members of Congress want a moratorium on the licensing and building of new facilities until more is known about the reactor crisis in Japan. Thirty-one percent of readers agree, compared with 69 percent who disagree.

More than 650 readers participated in this week’s poll, which was conducted March 14 and 15.

In your view, how safe is nuclear energy?
Very safe: 52%
Somewhat safe: 34%
Not very safe: 10%
Not at all safe: 4%

Should the United States halt the licensing and building of new reactors until more is known about the nuclear crisis in Japan?
No: 69%
Yes: 31%

Here are some comments from readers:

The issue of reactor safety, while important, is only a small part of the reason to be opposed to development of additional nuclear plants. There will always be a concern about production and long-term disposal of spent nuclear fuel. It is massive hubris to think that mankind can “safely” dispose of a substance with a 25,000-year half-life!
—Art Streeter

I know many people who have worked at Ginna, who tell me it’s very safe. I believe them until mother nature steps in. I have never been comfortable with a process that generates the waste that nuclear does.
—Peter E. Pape, The Riverside Group

No technology is without some risk. Nuclear power is as safe as it gets despite the tragedy in Japan. No one has ever died from a nuclear power plant event in the U.S. We fight wars over oil, lose miners in coal mine accidents, and foul the air with combustion-generated power. We need to learn from Japan’s misfortune, apply those lessons and continue with nuclear power as a key part of our energy policy.
—Duane Piede, North Coast Energy Associates

Our resources should be put into developing green energy and being on the cutting edge of technology advances, not putting money into old, unsafe technology. These sites are not only a threat due to natural disasters, but also terrorism.
—Judy Palmieri

Nuclear power is very safe, until there’s an accident!
—Sam Trapani

Everything has risks: Traditional boiler-driven generator plants can explode, and dams associated with hydro plants can collapse. You have to maximize safety, build what is economically best and appropriate enough money for regulators to perform adequate oversight.
—Paul Haney

The Japanese earthquake/tsunami last week was a true outlier in the distribution of earthquake magnitudes in history. When reactors are designed against only one natural event—say a Richter 7 or 8 earthquake, then a Richter 9 quake happens—things will break or go critical in unexpected ways. Then add the additional complication of that landscape-wiping tsunami (also an outlier) taking out all the redundancies built into the otherwise sound design. As in the history of aviation, the outlier nuclear events of last week are no reason to avoid nuclear technology. We human beings learn from history, hopefully to avoid literally repeating it. When problems occur, we design and implement solutions. The result will be improved designs in the future and retrofitted existing designs. Modern jet aircraft as a result have vastly reduced air-travel risks. Power generation of any type comes with risks; the reason insurance companies can exist. If we want to take advantage of modern technology we need power, so the risks must be taken! We just need to engineer our way around them.
—Carl Helmers, Pittsford

In Japan, a 40-year-old reactor was struck by one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history. Containment is secure, leakage is minimal, and had this been a more modern reactor, even this much of a problem would not have occurred. The tragedy here is that while this situation is being dealt with, Japanese oil refineries and gas storage facilities are burning in a genuine threat to health and environment.
—Clifford Coryea

Anyone who ever thought nuclear power is safe is not considering the devastating consequences when cooling or safety systems fail. When working properly, nuclear power plants are generally safe. It is when systems fail, and they always do, that nuclear power is unsafe. Have we not learned our lesson yet?
—Jennifer Mohr

Nuclear power has proven to be safer and cleaner than conventional means of power generation from coal or natural gas.
—Jeff Blood

The nuclear plant is as safe as the ground on which it sits. Do your homework.
—R. Phelps, Honeoye Falls

The failures in Japan are caused by one of the worst earthquakes in recorded history. We should not stop deploying nuclear energy because of a one-in-a-quadrillion event. Rather, the focus should be on learning from the reactor failures and moving forward.
—C. Lewis

Don’t build reactors over fault lines or in volatile political regions. Nuclear is better than fossil-fuel-derived energy for the environment short-term. Alternative energy sources are better long-term.
—Jon Goldstein

The issue isn’t whether nuclear is completely safe—nothing is—but how safe it is relative to the economically viable alternatives. Coal mining, for example, killed 6,000 people in China in 2004 and 28 in the United States.
—Brad Salai

In most areas of the U.S., the same crisis as Japan is highly unlikely. It’s even unlikely there, and they’ve done well to contain it as long as they have. Yes, plan for worst-case scenarios, but don’t stop completely.
—Scott Ireland

Bring it on, baby. That, and drill for natural gas in our backyards, too.
—Jim Duke, Victor

First, no one responding to this is qualified to answer that question. Second, no one making the final decision about nuclear energy will be qualified, either. Finally, you will read that the cost of making it safe has now become prohibitive to even consider. As long as a government driven by political motivation is involved, it will be neither safe nor cost effective. If the government would merely set the standards and actually insure those standards are met, it might be the answer to a lot of problems. Yeah, that might ever happen. Turn out the lights.
—Bill Lanigan

Opinions on nuclear power are almost as varied as on global warming, but as the saying goes, "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts." Nuclear power follows a course similar to your poll: Very Safe when built and promised to be very safe by the owners and agencies involved. Somewhat safe after the engineer falls asleep and some type of human error screws things up. Not very safe when a system fails. And not at all safe when disaster strikes as in Japan, Russia or Three Mile Island. The only part that has been left out and we as humans have been spared so far is the step after “Not safe at all,” where a nuclear meltdown wipes out half a country and spreads radiation over half a globe. God help us this never happens.
—Joe Wierzbowski, Plymouth Photo Studio

We need new sources of electricity for our ever growing demand. Nuclear power plants have proven to be safe and reliable. The tragic earthquake in Japan reinforces the need to build even more fail safe systems into any new plants that are built. But we must march forward with nuclear to lessen our dependence on foreign oil. I’m all for "green" energy, but as of today it still does not exist as a viable option to generate the quantities we need.
—George Thomas, Ogden

Let’s not have a knee-jerk reaction here. The plants actually performed as planned with respect to the quakes and withstood the forces thereof. The problem was with the tsunami that took out power and was seemingly unplanned for. Absent the tsunami, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. So cover the bases for tsunamis and let’s not overreact.
—Keith Robinson, CFO Diamond Packaging

However, there should be a review if the power plant is built on a fault or existing plants are built on a fault or wherever there could be a loss of power that could interrupt cooling (hurricanes, etc.). This aspect is not too demanding of a thought process.
—David Lincoln, Novipella Inc.

When you discuss how "safe" nuclear energy is you have to consider the hazard and the risk together. Similar to a plane crash, the risk can be low but the hazard can be very high. When you look at the history and the statistics, and when you know about the actual safety systems in place vs. what the liberal news network misreports, nuclear energy is a safe alternative energy that is much, much more abundant and real than wind or solar. I would say the government (who is technically incompetent, as is most of the public who run from anything to do with science, technology, engineering and mathematics only to sit on Facebook) should get educated and informed before rushing to a decision.
—Douglas Strang Jr., S & S Engineering, P.C.

Most forms of energy come with risks to people and the environment. It is frustrating that we are not facing our energy needs with a more realistic, constructive, comprehensive plan toward energy independence. And that would include weighing risks and benefits.
—Carolyn Phinney Rankin, president, Phinney Rankin Inc.

Nuclear power is clean and safe when implemented properly. We have been powering our warships with nuclear power since the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. The last I knew, we are simply the best military presence on earth. We could be the best energy presence on earth, as well. To be successful, nuclear power needs military type leadership, custodianship and implementation. No unions protecting incompetent workers and no bureaucrats or politicians to make rules and policies that favor donors. The recipe consists of respecting nuclear power for all its benefits and all its faults. The benefit side is us reaping the rewards of clean, inexpensive power. The fault side is anticipating the worst possible events, and creating triple failsafe redundancies around them to contain any catastrophe that occurs. In retrospect, it seems silly that Japan—in an earthquake region—wasn’t prepared for what might happen if the power went out for more than eight hours. Don’t you think? So the tradeoff is fossil fuel, funding terrorist countries that don’t like us, failed energy policies, giving energy control to government, traveling backward in time and using windmills. Far be it for our wise politicians to not discover that we could trade technology and proprietary research and development information to communist China for rickshaws, and somehow they would be doing "the right thing" because it would help fix global warming! There were more than 33,000 deaths due to car accidents in the U.S. in 2009, 33,000! One year! And that’s a low year. So figure low and average over 30,000 deaths EVERY year due to cars in the U.S. alone. Should we ban automobiles? Here come the rickshaws! Saving lives and global warming. I’d like to take this opportunity to announce my candidacy for  ….
—Lou Romano

What needs to be learned is how to develop a nonelectric grid backup cooling system. Might be a good application for wind power.
—Frank Muscato

Besides the dangers that nuclear reactors pose from outside forces, we still have the problem of dealing with all of the nuclear waste we are generating and stockpiling all over the country. That is never going to go away. Eventually that waste is also going to cause problems that may even be worse than what is happening in Japan today.
—Grant Osman

Nuclear power has proven itself safe and dependable and cost effective. This was a catastrophic event that literally moved the earth. The good that will come from this tragic event is we will learn how to make nuclear power even safer as we see what failed and will make improvements going forward.
—Peter Short, J.J. Short Associates, Inc.

Nuclear energy seems to be powerful and attractive, but obviously carries some rare but ominous dangers. Other alternatives (wind, solar, etc.) are relatively clean but unable to contribute substantially to the energy needs of the country (at this time). As the U.S. economy seems to be sinking into a sea of debt, I feel our safest alternative (for financial and security purposes) is the increased use of our own oil, gas and coal reserves, and the decreased use of imported oil, while continuing to develop alternative energy sources. The mere statement of our intent to aggressively drill for oil (accompanied by actual, carefully regulated, implementation) would send a powerful message to the other oil producers that we will not continue to be at the mercy of outside forces. I definitely favor the U.S. taking immediate steps to gain energy independence.
—Joe Cameron

With nuclear fission, the statistical risk is low, but the stakes are unbearably high. We need to add another layer of backup systems to our existing facilities while diving more aggressively toward a viable nuclear fusion option. Since the University of Rochester is at the forefront of that effort, we are positioned to benefit doubly from making fusion work economically.
—Don Waltzer

No one could have anticipated and prepared for the type of disaster that Japan has experienced. Fortunately reactors of the type in Japan have containment vessels surrounding the cores that should minimize release of radioactive particles into the environment. Unfortunately the tsunami disabled the backup generators that should have provided power to the pumps that must run to provide cooling of the reactor. While it is highly unlikely that the Japanese reactors will explode as did the one at Chernobyl we must anticipate there will be a release of radioactive particles if there is a meltdown—but not as portrayed in the fiction "China Syndrome." The greatest problem with reactors is that misguided environmentalists have been successful in keeping reactor operators from being able to properly dispose of radioactive waste which poses a greater problem than this disaster in Japan. Hopefully fusion reactors will soon become a reality and we will never again face this kind of disaster. For now we need sources of energy production that are as reliable as what nuclear reactors and coal power plants can provide. A one-in-500 year disaster must not prevent us from using this reliable source of energy. We should learn from this disaster and use it as an opportunity for improvement.
—Michael F. Kloppel, Chairman Ontario County Conservative Party

Let’s just all walk around the office with helmets on our heads and hope we don’t get hurt. Life is full of risks. This is just one of them. The incident In Japan shows we are not masters of the planet, it’s the other way around and it will always be that way. You just have to manage the risks you can. The long term benefit of properly constructed nuclear plants is known throughout Europe. Funny how we want to copy the European social model but we won’t build and European style nuclear electric grid program which provides the most economical environmentally friendly energy in large supply in the world. Wind and solar cannot put a dent in our energy needs. Hydro is great because rivers run continuously but environmentalist won’t let you build as dam. Clean coal is an option But the Administration won’t have it. If you don’t want nuclear then the iSocialists will have give up their iPod, iPad and iPhone. They are just iTools to me and I can live without them. Can you?
—Karl Schuler

The sky is not falling.
—Jim Weisbeck

We need a comprehensive national energy policy that includes clean coal, vastly increased domestic gas and oil drilling (on- and off-shore), and nuclear energy—built outside of the major fault areas.
—Ted Miller, President AVIK Technologies, Inc.

The U.S. should stop wasting money on nuclear energy development. Nuclear energy is not sustainable due to safety issues and cost of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel over 10,000 years. Solar, hydrogen and wind energy are sustainable sources of energy. We should be focusing our investment on sustainable sources of energy.
—Doug Flood

We have positively ancient nuclear technology in this country. Without innovation, nuclear power will never be as safe as it could and should be.
—Steven Smith

If a reactor can power an aircraft carrier, a small city, for 20 years before refueling I think they make sense. Safety is their main concern and they are clean. There are more people sick from coal plant emissions.
—Daniel Mossien, architect

While the power generated from nuclear reactors may be "cleaner" than other forms of energy, it is the process in which it is created that carries the greatest risk to us. Until we completely understand what has occurred in Japan, it would be irresponsible to move forward on any expansion of our nuclear energy program.
—Elizabeth Casper, Upstate Special Risk Services

This country needs to actively pursue alternative sources of energy. What should be learned from the situation in Japan is to investigate the geologic area before selecting a site for a nuclear power plant. The United States compared to Japan is much greater in size which enables us to be more selective in location of this type of power source.
—Sandy Johnson

For any nuclear facility, it could be only a matter of time before a natural disaster, human error, etc., renders it a grievous threat to human health and the environment. We really must ramp up our commitment to building alternative energy facilities! No new nukes! We have yet to deal effectively and safely with all the radioactive waste, which remains for thousands upon thousands of years. What legacy do we want to leave? Toxic nuclear waste is the longest-lasting legacy there is.
—Marjorie Campaigne, Project HOUSE/Green Irene

Japan had a nuke disaster because of a freak of nature. The plant in Ginna should not be in the way of nature’s wrath!
—Jack Bent, Commercial Real Estate Consultant

Newer, safer technologies are now available and should be put in place, some of which generate less radioactive waste than older reactors. Handling of wastes is a bigger long term issue than safety of reactors themselves, if properly designed. Long-term energy future plus carbon dioxide problems mean that nuclear will have to be used, so we might as well get on with developing the technologies with ever greater safety in mind.
—Bryan Hickman, president, Coach and Equipment Manufacturing

Nuclear reactors have been very safe throughout the world. However, many are old and probably have not been updated to modern technology. Our Ginna plant has been a safe plant and is an example of many. Except for the Chernobyl plant, very little amount of radiation has been released. It is overlooked that a coal-fired plant in the Japan earthquake zone would have also been severely damaged. Besides, coal fired plants continuously create huge piles of ashes and huge amounts of carbon dioxide. This is not a sign of environmental health. The Japanese problems should open our eyes to improvements over the years and should encourage more improvements in the design and running of nuclear plants. As a basis for mass electricity production, nuclear plants have been reliable and clean. I also support other clean technologies for electricity production, like water, geothermal, wind, solar, ocean waves. However, these are not available, and maybe capable, of providing the necessary electricity for a modern nation.
—Ingo H .Leubner, Crystallization Consulting

All energy has an associated cost or negative risk factor, e.g. global warming, smog, war, cost, visual impairment. It seems to me the nuclear record has been amazingly good. Why would we slow it down or ban it given we all want easily available, low cost, energy.
—Larry Peckham

According to NHTSA, there were 30,797 fatal crashes in 2009, killing 33,808 people, or 11 fatalities per 100,000 population. So by the same logic, should we not be calling for a halt of all vehicle production and road construction? There have been only two major reactor accidents in nearly 15,000 reactor-years of operation, with Chernobyl accounting for all 56 fatalities. There have also been about 10 lesser "melts" with no deaths or contamination outside of the plant. By comparison, wind energy has had 67 fatal accidents with 73 fatalities since the 1970s and provided a fraction of the power that nuclear has over the same time period. Safety is clearly a priority and if there is anything the industry can learn from the Japanese plant, that will be great. But to halt production over what is the result of an historic 9.0 earthquake and is thus far being contained would be foolish.
—Jim Garnham, Penfield

In a perfect world, electric companies would retire, dismantle and completely renovate their reactors using the very latest technology on a regularly scheduled basis, say, every 25?, 30?, 40? years. This would build yet another level of safety into an already VERY safe system.
—Tom Shea, Thomas P. Shea Agency Inc.

Japan is a network of unstable fault lines, so it’s impossible to locate a reactor safely. We have regulatory controls in place with stringent requirements for location, construction and operation of reactors.
—Kat Nagel

I don’t believe that nuclear power is riskier than any other form of power generation. There has been a catastrophic event in Japan and yes, there have been lives lost. But, were they the fault of nuclear power per se, or could they be attributed to errors made in the design or the maintenance of those particular reactors. I believe that with the proper design, build and maintenance, nuclear reactors are safe and pose modest risk. How many coal miners have been lost over the past 50 years supporting fossil fuel electrical generating plants? More than those associated with nuclear. And, that includes those people even near the reactors. Should added precautions have been taken with the reactors in Japan? Of course. Should they have been built inland and on higher ground? Yes. Should the fuel tanks for the generators have been underground? Probably. All second guessing at this point and let’s hope that the tragedy of human lives lost is as low as possible. But, let’s also not overreact and abandon an energy source that, if well managed, is definitely a step in the right direction. I live 20 miles from the Gannet nuclear power plant. Would I feel safer near million gallon tanks of liquid fuel? Probably not.
—Rick Bradley

In theory, nuclear energy can be as safe as fossil-fueled or large-scale hydro generation of electricity—but you can only answer the safety question practically, one plant at a time. Safety is a function of design and the quality of construction, management, and decommissioning of a nuclear plant, all of which relate to the specific site and the operating organization. Where some plants will inevitably fall short on close examination is in the trade-off between safety and, frankly, economics. A plant that could sustain a 9.0 earthquake would cost much more than one that could sustain a 7.0 earthquake—and then complications ensue.
—Martin Nott, O’Keeffe & Co. and former director of marketing programs at Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., now part of National Grid

It’s very safe, unless you breathe it in or drink it.
—Rich Calabrese Jr., RentRochester.com

History is usually a good indicator. Besides Chernobyl there hasn’t been many catastrophic accidents of nuclear power plants worldwide. Three Mile Island was a good example of an orderly and successful solution to a nuclear power plant accident with no fatalities. After 50-60 years that’s an impressive U.S. safety record. The current Japan nuclear power plant accident certainly creates some doubt. However, in the long run, I’m confident that common sense will prevail. Tens of thousands of people are killed annually in traffic accidents in the U.S., yet the car industry continues. A friend of mine was a commander of a nuclear submarine and later a nuclear submarine base. He maintains that nuclear power is amazingly safe. With all the vast undeveloped areas in our country, safe nuclear power should be a major solution to our future energy needs along with coal, natural gas and water power.
—John Rynne, president, Rynne, Murphy & Associates, Inc.

I worked in the nuclear power industry for more than 20 years, in various roles, having to do with trying to educate and inform. I’ve also played a role in training workers and in emergency preparedness. There is a staggering lack of knowledge on the part of the media, politicians and the public regarding both nuclear power and health effects of radiation. I suppose the industry, and its decades of providing, clean, safe and less costly electricity has little effect on the irrational fears and the public’s inability to differentiate between weapons and reactors. People need to understand that commercial power reactors of the type used in the U.S. and Japan are designed to very high safety standards. They also need to understand that the implementation of any technology involves tradeoffs. Builders and designers use available knowledge, and then add margins of safety within those assumptions’ limits. I don’t know the assumptions made in the construction of Japans’ plants, however it’s unlikely they planned for a 9.0 earthquake followed by a 30-feet-plus tsunami when sitting these reactors, mostly because none were previously recorded. Although we could hypothesize numerous risks, the frequency of these events and their consequences must be considered against the cost of building to those unknown possibilities. Airplanes and automobiles frequently crash and deaths occur as a result, but we don’t stop flying or driving. We incrementally improve the technology based on lessons learned. Regardless of the outcome of this particular event, we can be certain that every regulatory agency around the world will reexamine their own assumptions and design and modify existing plants to withstand these sort of events if warranted. When new plants are built on new designs that are more inherently safe, data from prior events will be utilized. Plant layouts and sitting will also take into account what happened in Japan. Nuclear power is necessary to keep our economy competitive and “green” there is no question that with great swings in oil prices, continuing to move higher and higher we need nuclear power to grow. When all is said and done, even with a worst case scenario crippling Japans reactors, the death toll is already much, much higher from the devastating effects of the earthquake and tsunami than could possibly result from any worst case event at a modern nuclear reactor.
—Frank Orienter, Rochester

(c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

One comment

  1. What a ridiculous survey. RBJ, give me a break. What is the point on asking your ‘educated’ readership about whether they “think” nuclear energy is safe?

    I’m sure that a plurality of the residents of Fukushima prefecture in Japan probably “thought” that nuclear energy is/was safe. Look at what they’re dealing with now. What a poorly timed (or poorly thought out) survey. Trying to convince ourselves that something is really safe creates a very dangerous sense of complacency. Just because we think or perceive something to be safe, doesn’t make it so.

    Nuclear energy is very safe, when carried out in a vacuum or at least in the most perfect conditions. Adding earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons into the equation creates some additional (and wildcard) variables in this equation. Very few, if any, of the readers are really knowledgeable enough to comment on this survey, so why even posit the question in the first place, other than to make your readers look like fools?

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