Commentary: On nuclear power, public needs safety reassurance

Although experts still do not understand clearly what went wrong, the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear installation has sparked understandable fears about nuclear safety and a debate that will have significant consequences for the future of South Florida and its energy needs.

Nuclear industry officials have been at pains to proclaim that the 104 U.S. nuclear power plants are safe. One compelling piece of evidence they cite is that, globally, nuclear plants have close to 15,000 reactor-years of experience, with known severe accidents limited to five commercial power reactors — three of them in Fukushima and only one, at Three Mile Island, in the United States.

As impressive as that seems, skeptics point out that one nuclear accident is one too many. Indeed, the event at Three Mile Island was so traumatic that it froze the industry in its tracks for three decades, going on four.

Now, as a result of Fukushima, the Tennessee Valley Authority says it is considering improvements for the six nuclear reactors it operates because of “potential vulnerabilities from a chain of events.” Meanwhile, power producer NRG, which was planning the largest nuclear project in the country, announced it was giving up plans for two giant reactors in South Texas and writing off its $331 million investment.

The future of the nuclear-power industry is of crucial importance to South Florida because energy provider FPL says it needs to add two reactors at Turkey Point in South Miami-Dade to cover projected electrical power requirements for a growing population.

Last week, FPL executives offered assurances to a delegation of four local members of Congress that it was prepared for any conceivable eventuality and that comparisons with Fukushima were off the mark. Turkey Point has a different design, was built by a different company (Westinghouse, not GE), and is powered by different fuel (uranium, not plutonium).

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