In the wake of the tsunami, we are reminded that nothing brings our enormous planet down to size quite like its basic building block. We have seen now the astonishing damage that the kinetic energy in the earth’s crust can do, but we wait with trepidation to learn what damage the lowly atom will have done to Japan this time.
It’s been almost 46 years since the power of nuclear fission was unleashed upon two cities forever linked with atomic energy; Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs detonated there were the physical proof of a theory first proposed forty years before that, in the work of physicist Albert Einstein, whose simple equation about what energy equals concealed mathematics of the utmost complexity.
As a nuclear arms race heated up after World War II, some scientists suggested that atomic fission could be put to use for mankind’s good, and the first atomic power plant went online in Idaho in 1951. Then as now, the atomic reactor served as a glorified tea kettle, boiling water to spin turbines that would generate electricity. Skeptics warned that the potential harm to residential areas latent in the plants’ radioactive fuel outweighed the potential benefits, but proponents noted that nuclear power plants cut down carbon emissions as well as dependence on foreign oil.
America’s first commercial reactor opened in 1957; Alabama’s first in 1974. The Browns Ferry nuclear plant, operated by TVA near Athens, was the first in the nation with a capacity for generating a billion watts of electricity. Unfortunately, it may be better known for catching fire in 1975. Four years before Three Mile Island, thanks to a careless electrician, northwest Alabama came perilously close to experiencing core meltdown, when nuclear fuel rods exposed after a cooling system failure liquefy and send toxic levels of radioactivity into the air. Browns Ferry Unit One was repaired subsequently and two other reactors added, but all three were shut down in 1985 by TVA over continuing safety concerns.
Unit One returned to full service in 2007, but the Nuclear Information and Resource Service claimed TVA still hasn’t addressed the safety issues that shut the reactor down in 1975. “If this is proof of a nuclear power resurgence,” NIRS executive director Michael Mariotte said, “then the industry is in big trouble. TVA spent $1.8 billion just to get this obsolete reactor running again, and the utility still can’t meet basic federal safety regulations.”
Here in Birmingham, our current is fed by Alabama Power, part of Southern Company and owner of the Joseph M. Farley Nuclear Electric Generating Plant, located at the other end of the state, near Dothan. It’s suffered no major mishaps on the Browns Ferry level, but in January, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cited the licensee for two performance deficiencies, each rated “more than minor”.
It’s not the first time Farley Units One and Two have been in NRC’s crosshairs. In 1996 the commission levied a $50,000 fine to the licensee for having insufficient fire protection on electrical cables involved in safe shutdown procedures. The NRC also issued several Notices of Violation related to safety issues to the Farley plant between 2007-2009.
Alabama’s nuclear plants have shown that they can generate electricity safely and unobtrusively on a daily basis. Japan’s nuclear plants have shown that at any time and without warning, the caprice of fate could turn Reddy Kilowatt into Godzilla.
Shouldn’t our power providers be turning away from life-threatening nuclear reactors and coal-fired steam plants toward cleaner, safer renewable energy sources? Alabama Power’s Michael Sznajderman stepped up to respond:
“We (Alabama Power) are supportive of renewables and want to expand their use where and when it makes economic sense for our customers. As you may know, we have offered our residential customers a biomass-based Renewable Energy Rate since 2003 and it has since been expanded to commercial accounts. We recently partnered with the Westervelt Company in west Alabama on a timber-waste project that will produce about 7 megawatts of biomass energy for us in about a year. (That´s enough power for about 3,000 homes.) We also offer an alternate-energy rate for customers who want to install small solar systems and sell their excess power back to us.
“We are aggressively researching other renewable technologies, such as solar, that show promise but are still prohibitively expensive in the South compared to conventional sources. (Solar is about half as efficient here as in the desert Southwest, hence twice as expensive here than there.) We have installed four types of the latest solar technologies at our corporate headquarters so we can look closely at how well they work in real-world conditions in our muggy, more-cloudy-than-sunny climate, and are planning some other small installations around our system. We also are looking at some limited wind applications—we have a wind turbine on our roof, too, with some additional wind technologies on the way… “
We also have put out requests for renewable projects and are evaluating several now. And we are upgrading turbines at some of our hydro plants so we can produce more emission-free hydro energy with the same amount of water. (BTW, Alabama happens to be sixth in the nation in renewable capacity according to the Energy Information Administration because of our hydro capacity).”
The news from Japan is agonizing to apprehend, with hundreds of thousands affected by the primordial power of an earthquake, and thousands more exposed to the dangers of unfettered radioactive isotopes. As Fukushima joins Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in the disquieting lexicon of nuclear power failure, our proximity to nuclear hazards right here in Alabama makes the words of Albert Einstein in 1947 worth recalling: “We scientists recognize our inescapable responsibility to carry to our fellow citizens an understanding of atomic energy and its implication for society. In this lies our only security and our only hope—we believe that an informed citizenry will act for life and not for death.”
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.