BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
With Japan confronting some daunting dangers, we should be asking if nuclear power is something we as a species can afford to continue relying on. This question takes on added poignancy when applied more narrowly to the Republic of Armenia, its current nuclear-produced electricity, and the intention to replace the old reactor with a new one.
Already, we have the RoA’s officialdom telling us the reactors in Yerevan are “protected” against a fate such as Japan’s. I heard a former high ranking NRC (the U.S.’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission, formerly called the Atomic Energy Commission, AEC) official being interviewed. One thing that stood out was his observation that comments to the effect of “this can’t happen to us” should not be given much credence.
The reason for this lack of credibility is the foundation of that sort of statement. The foundation is “well, that’s a different design of reactor” and/or “it’s in a different geological/geographical location”, or any other dissimilarity between/among nuclear reactors and plants. But ultimately, we see that accidents keep happening, with different causes to different designs in different locations.
The harm and potential for harm is immense. I’ve seen some numbers reported already that Japan may face a $180 billion tab as a result of the current mess. That’s not including the human harm and disruption that may still come if things get further out of control in the damaged nuclear reactors and their surroundings.
Let’s go to Armenia. It is earthquake prone. It’s high enough above sea level not to be endangered by tsunamis. It doesn’t have anywhere near the resources Japan has to contend with an accident. Yet, the RoA government is set on building a new nuclear reactor. I have a well informed friend who technical judgment I trust who argues that such a plant is absolutely necessary for Armenia to survive, otherwise it has nothing.
So the question becomes, is the risk worth it? Is current economic survival (here assuming the worst— that there are no viable alternative development paths for Armenia) worth the risk of rendering the area around wherever the new reactor would be sited unlivable for a multi-generational period of time? And imagine if the location is as close to Yerevan as the current reactor. What happens to the population in the heart of the Republic in case of an accident? We’re seeing, through the previous and current nuclear mishaps, that human error always plays a role. Can we afford that risk?
Lest you think that living in the U.S. you’re safe, here are a few interesting facts. The design of the reactor experiencing fires and explosions in Japan is the same as 23 in the U.S. I grew up about 20 miles from one of them (the Oyster Creek power plant located in Forked River, NJ). It turns out that the AEC, in 1972 produced a document questioning the safety of this particular design! Moving to the other coast, it turns out one of California’s isn’t even required to have an earthquake contingency plan! Also, the risk of locally generated tsunamis exists along the west coast of North America.
So, think hard, very hard. Do we want nuclear power in Armenia? Do we want billions in subsidies going to the nuclear power industry as currently being proposed in Washington D.C.? Can we afford nuclear power and its risks/dangers?