Many of you may not realize that my husband is a nuclear operator at a nuclear power plant here in Iowa. More specifically he is a control room supervisor. Before that he served six years on nuclear submarines in the Navy.
This is the USS Florida, one of the subs that hubs was assigned to.
Nuclear power has been our life- the only life I've known for the course of the 18 years that we have been married.
And yet there is still so much that I do not understand about it. It may not help that I am not allowed to see the intricacies of his job, as I can not get the security clearance required to enter the plant. Or the road to the plant, for that matter, thanks to the terrorists of 9-11. He has tried to educate me over the years, perhaps in an attempt to calm my concerns.
But where there is an emergency evacuation plan plastered in the front of every phone book in the city... it seems only logical to me that some degree of concern is valid.
*But please do not stop reading here.*
On March 16th we were en route to South Carolina. More specifically, Columbia, South Carolina- hubs was being interviewed at a brand new nuclear power plant, not yet constructed, for a possible position at their PWR (Pressurized Water Reactor). A warm destination that sounded perfect for spring break, so the kids and I packed it up and tagged along.
It was about then that the Fukushima plant in Japan was making headlines.
The patchy signal from my iphone was feeding my fixation. I devoured every article I could find. I had to know everything. I had to understand why this happened. And if it could have been prevented.
This was not just a disaster that had struck thousands of miles away. This was a disaster that could affect our life right here. This had become a national crisis. People were in panic mode. Sessions of congress were being scheduled. Politicians were already talking of pulling the plug on plants here in the states. Plants that could be our ticket out of Iowa. Plants that employed my husband.
It was becoming too personal for me. But it wasn't until I read of the "Fukushima 50" that it really hit home.
On the evening of Mar 16th after we settled into our hotel in Columbia, SC I shared this on facebook. (Very telling of my state of mind at the time.)
Haldan is not much of an alarmist. He has tried at every turn to downplay as to not worry me. But there are red flags that must be addressed. We are definitely not getting the entire story and Japan may be in denial. They have 6 reactors damaged- none of which were rated for that size quake or tsunami. They are focusing on #4 because of an outage that left so many spent fuel rods exposed. Without power there is no coolant to keep the rods at a regulated temp, causing them to continually heat until it boils off all water, eventually causing hydrogen explosions (due to a metal found in the encasement surrounding the rods). But I fear that the radioactive particles that have been expelled from that are nothing in comparison to what may happen should the primary containment be compromised. At least that is my take on it. I pray to God I am wrong. But now we are slowly getting reports of cracks and leaks and possible melting... As they speak of the Fukushima 50 that are risking their lives for the greater good, trying at all costs to prevent a total meltdown, my heart is breaking. I'm certain this was not in their job description and perhaps it is hitting too close to home now.
I know there are many jobs that have severe degree of risks involved, that this is not the only occupation with hazards.
But it is the current occupation of my husband. A selfless man that, if asked of him, would willingly risk his life for the greater good. A man that could have easily been one of the Fukushima 50.
This is not a thought that makes me sleep well at night. It is also not a thought that I like to exercise regularly.
But I know that it is only by reading and educating myself that I can conquer my own fears and find peace concerning my husband and the task that takes him away from us at all hours of the day and night on a regular basis.
After extensive reading these are the thoughts that calm me when I kiss my husband good-bye and send him off to work...
Nuclear power is one of the safest forms of energy. It is clean, efficient, and highly effective. It does not emit harmful emissions like that of coal or oil. It is also much more long reaching than that of wind or solar power. However, many people fear it. They think of radiation and Three Mile Island or Chernobyl and immediately think of nuclear meltdowns. The truth is, we are all exposed to radiation every single day we take a breath. According to the EPA, on average, a normal person is exposed to 360 millirem of radiation yearly.
Low levels are found in waterways, rocks, and plant life all around us. Microwaves, x-rays, smoking, even flying... all add to the levels of radioactivity we are exposed to. And it is very likely that some of the Japanese who fled their homes received more radiation from flying than they would have had they stayed put. But it is difficult to measure these levels, as most Americans do not wear TLDs (Thermoluminescent Dosimeters) like nuclear operators making it is difficult to know precise levels.
But you can click here to measure your approximate amount of radiation in mrem.
You might be surprised. I know I was.
The thought of radiation takes me again to the islands of Japan.
No one could have ever foreseen such devastation. A 9.0 earthquake. Then a tsunami that arrived at a speed of up to 800 kilometers per hour (the speed of a small jet liner). Waves 23 feet high. If the quake wasn't enough, the water did them in. Water, when unleashed, is a dangerous force to be reckoned with. (We had a small glimpse of the damaging powers of water back in the flood of 08.) The nuclear plant was doomed.
It truly was the perfect storm.
And although it has been a wake-up call for me personally, the chances of that "perfect storm" ever happening in the United States is very slim to non-existent.
There are only 9 coastal nuclear power plants here in the states. 2 on the Pacific. 2 on the Gulf. And 5 on the Atlantic. At least by my count. Correct me if I am wrong. Unlike Japan, the majority of our nuclear power plants are situated in lowly populated areas.
Also, Fukushima had not one, but SIX reactors attached to that plant.
Those square looking buildings are where the reactors are housed. This photo shows four and the other two are located outside of this shot, but can be seen in the above photo.
In the United States there are no facilities with that number of reactors. Arizona houses the largest one, with three reactors at the Palo Verde Station. Most have one or two.
To put it into better perspective, consider the loss of life that has occurred due to energy generation between the years of 1970-1992. According to the World Nuclear Association, coal leads in fatalities with 6400 deaths followed by hydroelectric dams at 4000. Natural gas came in third at 1200. And nuclear power had only 31 deaths. Those are some staggering statistics.
Every single crisis that has occurred over the course of history has been implemented into operator training manuals to ensure that no mistake is ever repeated. Since the Chernobyl disaster of '86 there have been no other disasters until Fukushima.
It is my hope that we do not let the extraordinary happenings of Fukushima consume us with fear and prevent the United States from reaching it's potential.
There have always been and will always be natural disasters of all kinds. Japan's was one of the worst possible scenarios. But the fact that those reactors faired as well as they did with a 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by that size tsunami should be considered encouraging. Additionally, we can not make decisions based on what ifs.
That is not a way to live.
More importantly, that is not the way that I want to live.
We can not move forward if we are hindered by fear. And most things feared are not so scary when we really understand them. At least this has been my experience.
I live in the United States of America. Land of opportunities. Or so I've been told. Nuclear Energy is the sustainable energy of my future. And my children's future.
Let's move forward. Review the accident of Fukushima. Implement lessons learned into the design and operation of our nuclear plants.
And not let fear win out in the end.
Your future is up to you.
Photos taken from google images.