Linda Richards on the risks of nuclear power

This is our very own Linda Richard’s response to the editorial in The Corvallis Gazette-Times, entitled Promising NuScale still faces challenges

I understand how much people want to hear and believe that this technology can be a quick fix for climate change. I admire how much effort Dr. Reyes, OSU and his company have put into developing a safer nuclear reactor. But in reality, there are many social and historical problems that a new passive nuclear design may not solve. First, the reason large nuclear power plants were built is because of economies of scale to make nuclear power more affordable. How do small modular reactors make nuclear more economical? I also worry that we are being distracted by a glitzy unproven technology which only holds some promise while losing time to prepare for climate change with other sources that we can all support and are less expensive. Are we losing the resources we need to invest in sustainable and proven energies that most everyone feels safe with? Why invest in these untried, risky technologies like small modular reactors when there are more acceptable, working alternatives, such as wind, solar and conservation?
As a historian of science, I think there is much more to consider about nuclear power risks than were mentioned in the article. These include concerns about radiation health safety standards. These standards were originally constructed by the Atomic Energy Commission with the full intent of proving the safety of fallout from nuclear weapons tests. I have never felt safe knowing I have artificial radiation such as Sr-90 in my bones because of nuclear weapons tests; which was not the last time the public was told nuclear pollution was safe. We are still told if an exposure is below background levels it is safe, but because of weapons tests, medical uses and nuclear accidents, that “background” level has increased on average a third since 1945. Thinking of background radiation as measure of safety also does not take into account the qualitative differences between exposure from artificial radionuclides released by reactors and naturally occurring uranium and cosmic rays.
Calling the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the “gold standard of reactor safety” is not at all the story told by former NRC chair Gregory Jaczko. Jaczko was forced out of his role by the nuclear industry after he tried to respond to the Fukushima disaster by instituting tighter safety controls. Mining uranium without proper concern or oversight has led to extensive billion dollar attempts to clean up the uranium mine pollution still on the Navajo Nation today. It is indigenous people who are disproportionately harmed by uranium mining worldwide. The safety of nuclear waste storage is not to be taken for granted, either. Just last February, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, a “safe” nuclear repository, leaked severely and contaminated 22 workers.
Any nuclear power plant, small or large, also raises nuclear weapons proliferation concerns as well. And we all know how devastating horrible nuclear power accidents have been and can be. There are many reasons why someone should have doubts about investing in more nuclear power. But I am happy to invite the reporter, Bennett Hall, the GT Editorial Board, the residents of Corvallis and other concerned, interested people to visit the Nuclear Age exhibit by the OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center on the 5th floor of the Valley Library to see the many sides of our relationship with nuclear weapons and power.

Thank you, Linda M. Richards

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