For North Country nuclear advocates, grim new questions

Marquil's view

The last couple of months, local politicians from Queensbury to Massena have been calling for a nuclear-powered future, one in which a new power plant located here in the region would boost prosperity.

Freshman Rep. Chris Gibson — who represents the 20th district in the US House — has led the way, making the concept a centerpiece of his first term.

He argues that communities should have the chance to compete for a new plant.

According to the Glens Falls Post-Star, Gibson was scheduled to speak this week to th U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Roundtable luncheon in Washington DC.

But he’s hardly alone in taking up this banner.

Across the political spectrum, nuclear power boosters have more momentum than at any time since the Three Mile Island disaster three decades ago.

The dodgy part of this new push for nuclear power is that many proponents have been insisting that doubters and skeptics are little more than nattering nabobs of negativism.

When the Glens Falls Post Star condemned the idea of building new nuke plants in our region — insisting that the facilities still aren’t “completely safe” — the paper’s editorial board drew derision and mockery at one of Rep. Gibson’s town hall meetings.

But the truth is that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the nuclear power industry, many of them highlighted by the unfolding nightmare in Japan.

We’ve been promised that these plants are engineered with layers of safety protocols, state-of-the-art engineering, and back-up systems.  The situation in Japan suggests otherwise.

A half-dozen reactors in that country are now at risk of full-scale meltdown.  We’ve been treated to images of containment buildings dissolving in clouds of smoke and debris.

The crew of one of our US navy ships has now been exposed to at least low levels of radiation.

But Japan’s crisis isn’t the only warning sign.  The Vermont Yankee plant has been plagued with technical and safety problems, including hazardous material leaks, for years.

Scientists have also been raising new questions about the Indian Point nuclear facility near New York City.  This from the Mid Hudson News.

According to an August 2008 paper in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, there are concerns.

“A study by a group of prominent seismologists suggests that a pattern of subtle but active faults makes the risk of earthquakes to the New York City area substantially greater than formerly believed,” the US Geological Survey reported.

“Among other things, they say that the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plants, 24 miles north of the city, sit astride the previously unidentified intersection of two active seismic zones.”

So far, politicians are insisting that the game hasn’t changed.  Here’s what New York Senator Chuck Schumer said on Sunday morning’s Meet the Press.

“We are going to have to see what happens here — obviously still things are happening — but the bottom line is we do have to free ourselves of independence from foreign oil in the other half of the globe.

Libya showed that. Prices are up, our economy is being hurt by it, or could be hurt by it. So I’m still willing to look at nuclear. As I’ve always said it has to be done safely and carefully.”

Fair enough.  But it’s time for proponents of nuclear power to engage in a more forthright way with critics of the industry.

The truth is that a lot of questions still need to be answered before more plants are built.  And it appears that there are more thorny and challenging questions surfacing every day in Japan.

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74 Comments on “For North Country nuclear advocates, grim new questions”

  1. JDM says:

    “Fair enough. But it’s time for proponents of nuclear power to engage in a more forthright way with critics of the industry.”

    Too bad you don’t have the same sentiments when you substitute “man-made global warming” for “nuclear power”.

    Nuclear power is decades old technology, and you still call for a debate.

    Man-made global warming is much younger as far science goes, but all debate is closed???

  2. JDM says:

    To address the nuclear power issue.

    Japan is the land of earthquakes. An 8.5 in Japan is like an 8.5 in southern California. It’s bigger than before, but it’s in the place where big earthquakes happen.

    To juxtapose that possibility to New York is a bigger stretch, off by a magnitude of scare tactics. If we ever see something like an 8.5, someone has to go back and redefine the continental shelf theory.

    Plus, it is more than likely, any NEW nuclear plant will have much better containment than those that exist today, which are DECADES OLD.

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Actually JDM the theories and understanding of the physical laws of gases were figured out beginning in the 17th century, al least.

    Atomic theory is a 20th century study, and the practical application of nuclear power is about 70 years old.

  4. JDM says:


    Actually, in the 1970s, we were heading into an ice age. So much for 17th century theory.

  5. Both nuclear and greenhouse gases have the potential to render the environment or large portions of it uninhabitable. At the moment nuclear energy is mostly under control. What is occurring in Japan brings into question whether it is under control to the extent that we have convinced ourselves it was. Greenhouse gases and global warming are not under control. The evidence has been being collected for “decades” but we weren’t paying attention until the levels of greenhouse gases were approaching a threshold where they could cause severe climate change. We are still arguing, while evidence continues to mount, over whether or not it is real and if so should we trouble ourselves to do anything about it (as if a habitable environment was optional).

    Re: nuclear power. There is another alternative out there. I don’t claim to be an expert but several years ago I learned about pebble bed technology, a much lower risk way of extracting energy from nuclear. Reportedly it works only on a small scale, which helps to limit potential harm, but individual generators can be chained together to create more capacity where needed. When things do go awry the window for remedial action is days or weeks rather than minutes or hours and the actions needed to get things back under control are less ‘heroic’ in nature. Reportedly this is the technology that China is pursuing in its nuclear generation but “the West” remains wedded to the idea of large scale nuclear reactors. Pebble bed technology has been around just as long as the reactor technology we use but we decided for military reasons to go with reactors. In looking at our energy future, along with examining the nuclear technology we have, perhaps we should be looking at alternative methods for using nuclear.

  6. JDM says:

    Sometimes, these end-of-the-world theories are built on a house of cards.

    Unless you are determined to park-your-brain, and nod-your-head, they are easily disproved.

    Once someone comes forward to disprove them, instead of doing the intelligent thing, and say, “what is the truth, here?” the knee-jerk reaction is to attack the critic, and leave the house-of-cards theory intact.

  7. Bret4207 says:

    I’ve been following the Japan events closely. What I’m finding is that this was a 40 year old plant due to be shut down this year, some sources say within the month. I’m also reading that this event was a so called 1200 year event, something that put the odds of it occurring once in 1200 years. The explosions we’ve watched were supposedly from a build up of hydrogen, the same gas some would have us use in our cars as an alternative. The levels of radiation reported vary rather widely, from no more than what you’d get in a 4 hour high altitude plane flight to much more and much less. (Of course time and exposure are the key to problems with radiation but the press doesn’t concern itself with that.)

    What I’ve come away with is that Japan has a problem, that nuclear plants in highly active earthquake zones need to be built with backup systems that take all possibilities into account, that the press is loving the spectacle, that 40 year old plants hold up remarkably well considering the level of this event and that if we’re going to build these plants, and I think we need to, we need to over build them and plan for the worst.

    You know the biggest thing I’ve come away with? There must be close to 95% of the population that simply has NO inclination to look beyond the headlines. I’ve read more crackpot theories from internet “experts” than I can stomach. Half of it says we’re all doomed, half says it’s all a conspiracy and the 3rd half says it’ Bushs fault.

  8. Brian Mann says:

    Bret, JDM –

    I get it. There is a big gap between the information sources that we all pay attention to and trust. The tendency is always to wag fingers at each other and consider these to be political debates.

    But what we’re seeing here is a reiteration of a basic fact that most unbiased engineers and scientists embrace:

    You can’t design for everything. There is no such thing as perfect. Human-built systems are always flawed, always vulnerable to the unexpected.

    Accepting these realities is, essentially, a conservative approach to policy.

    Being conservative means we need to think differently about facilities which pose such massive dangers when and if something does go wrong.

    That doesn’t mean we don’t build nuclear plants.

    But it does mean that we need to talk and think very rationally and skeptically about the long-term risks we’re willing to accept.

    Too much of the talk about nuclear power is glib and self-satisfied boosterism, when what we need is honest, level-headed facts.

    Remember, the people in Japan were given EXACTLY the same iron-clad promises that we’re being offered here in the US.

    So we need to kick the tires and think hard about next steps.

    –Brian, NCPR

  9. Pete Klein says:

    Yes, by all means, let’s scare people.
    There is no need to debate anything with cowards.
    We need nuke energy now.

  10. Brian Mann says:

    Pete – Are you serious? You think people who raise questions in the wake of this event are ‘cowards’?

    If you are serious, then this is exactly the kind of silly, ad hominem stuff that seems more unacceptable today than yesterday.

    (And it was pretty awful yesterday.)

    –Brian, nCPR

  11. dbw says:

    All our opinions aside, the impact of events in Japan is likely to be serious reservations about building more nuclear power plants. That is what happened after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. This certainly will complicate our energy future.

  12. newt says:

    Discuss it all you want.
    Practically speaking, new nukes are now toast for the foreseeable future in the USA.

  13. PNElba says:

    Speaking of Chernobyl and man not being able to affect the environment….

  14. George Nagle says:

    Is the cost of permanent storage of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants assumed by those who use its electricity? If not, should it?

    Would proponents of additional nuclear power plants be willing to store nuclear waste permanently in the service area for which the produced electricity is principally intended? If not, what considerations would suggest to others that they should accept a storage facility in their vicinity?

    Why is it necessary for the United States government to guarantee insurance if nuclear power plants are as safe as they are represented to be?

  15. phahn50 says:

    Newt unfortunately has a point. The thing is the rare events – 1200 year events, 50 year events do occur. Partially because the calculations are low-grade estimates, and partially because there are lots of reactors lasting 50 years. My probability calculation ability isnt good enough, but if you have 100 reactors, how many years does it take before you have a 50-50 chance of a 1 in a 1000 year event to occur to one of those reactors? Whats the odds that the event will occur in the next 10 years? The point is, from a purely economic point of view, you have to assume that these things will occur and factor in the costs. Maybe you can buy insurance from somebody to try to average out the costs. These particular events are particularly scary too. (although the Tsunami, at the end of the day, will have done a lot more damage, even if there were no nuclear power plants).

  16. phahn50 says:

    and george’s point about the cost of storage is a good point too. No one is willing to store the stuff yet. You have to figure in the lost real estate value of the land anywhere near the storage facility.

  17. Pete Klein says:

    Brian M,
    Sorry to get you all excited and beside yourself.
    I was thinking of a bigger problem. The one where we need to debate and study everything forever.
    We employ thousands of “experts” and spend tons of money on them to study and debate, then do it over and over again (to keep them employed at high salaries?) but seem never to reach an agreement.
    I’m just saying, either we should decide once and for all to build the plants or not to build them ever forever.
    I for one am tired of all the “experts” who seem primarily expert at getting money from the taxpayer forever and ever but never do an honest days work and never produce anything but more and more paper.

  18. Brian Mann says:

    Peter –

    First, yes, when you call people cowards I take umbrage. Snark all you want, but that’s not the tone of this blog or its comment section.

    Secondly, no, it’s not okay when nuclear power plants are literally blowing up to simply thumb your nose at the overpaid “experts” and go marching forward.

    The highest paid experts in this conversation are the ones who told us that this crisis could never happen.

    I’m not suggesting that we don’t build more plants.

    But IMO, the exact tone of your comments — an impatience, a lack of curiosity, a lack of skepticism — is now no longer viable.

    –Brian, NCPR

  19. phahn50 says:

    I also take umbrage at the anti-expert comments. Experts are occasionally wrong. That has to be factored in – there is uncertainty in life. That doesnt mean we are free to ignore the experts or make up stuff (JDM). In this case, “they” the experts didnt say these events couldnt occur. They said they were unlikely to occur. The engineering of the sea-wall to protect the plant may turn out to be inadequate – or the placement of the back-up generators may turn out to be poorly though out.

    But so far at least, it is also not correct, Brian M, to say “nuclear power plants are literally blowing up”. They are in danger of blowing up, but so far they havent, even after experiencing one of these 1 in a 1000 year events. (yes some buildings have blown up – but not the reactors.)

  20. phahn50 says:

    And – to play devils advocate: The tsunami has killed at least 10000 people. Even if the the reactors blow up a la Chernobyl, they wont kill even 1000 people, even if you count the potential cancer deaths from radiation exposure. And although the costs would be in the billions of dollars, the tsunami costs are already in the multiple billions.

    That isnt to say that anyone would want to live near one of these disasters, but as a disaster it is on the order of a hurricane, although hopefully not as bad as Katrina.

  21. MrSandwich says:

    I thought I heard something the other day about Thorium reactors to replace Uranium. Not sure how far along those are.

  22. John Warren says:

    Vermont Yankee is almost identical in design to the reactors that are currently melting down in Japan, they were built just one year apart (40 years ago) by the same company – General Electric. In fact, Vermont Yankee’s containment is believed to be somewhat weaker than that of the Japanese plants because they were designed to withstand earthquakes (same with Pilgrim near Boston, and others in the northeast).

    Vermont Yankee’s re-licensing was approved by the NRC the day before the Japanese quake, despite the fact that evidence suggest Vermont (one of the few states who can deny re-licensing) is about to vote to close the plant down because of its poor safety and environmental record.

    If you don’t think it can happen here, consider the experience of the Fermi plant near Detroit. For 20 years safety checks (including those at the federal level) guaranteed that the emergency backup diesel generators required to cool the fuel rods in an emergency were in perfect working order. Those are the same generators that failed causing at least one of the Japanese meltdowns. At Detroit the diesel generator safety system was repeatedly inspected and passed, but because that testing was faulty, there was no idea whether or not it would have actually worked properly in an emergency. So much for rigorous safety checks and the promise of new technology that will keep us all safe.

    And if you think the smart plant operators will keep us safe, consider that the entire crew of Chernobyl died within about three weeks because they failed to heed the most important safety device they had, radiation dosimeters. The crew chief there assumed the unusually high reading must be inaccurate, and so they stayed in the control room without protective gear.

    Yes, the risk is fairly low but the impact of a single accident is far higher than we should consider allowable.

    Chernobyl death estimates range from 4,000 to about 1 million, a testament to what we don’t know about these accidents (there were at least 1,800 documented cases of thyroid cancer in children); 120,000 to 200,000 people were permanently displaced, some 187 small communities in the exclusion zone are virtually abandoned to this day. There were a lot more impacts on water, food, wildlife (including fishing and hunting) and of course the economy.

    Here is a list of known (and that’s a big factor here, because the companies are notoriously secretive) accidents at civilian plants only:

    Unfortunately many of those on the right continue to pretend that none of this is true or that there are mitigating reasons it will never happen here. But as these 40 year old plants are granted 20 more years of life beyond their design parameters, I’m afraid we will see a meltdown in our future.

    You have to wonder what makes people continue to buy into the concept that we must have this outdated technology with all its storage problems and great risk to human health and the environment when there are plenty of underutilized fairly benign alternative energy proposals that go undeveloped. I personally think it’s the same thing that lets people pretend that climate change is not happening – simple adherence to political ideology over common sense.

  23. Bret4207 says:

    John the diesels in Japan were flooded, reports say lifted off their bases. That’s not exactly the ammo you need to say “they didn’t work”. And if you have a workable real world alternative to nuclear then by all means, please, let’s hear about it.

    Brian M, I’m not scoffing, calling it politics or anything else. I’m saying we need to overbuild. I think you’re lumping me in with JDM and in this case I don’t agree with his assertion that this event is similar to global warming. I agree with your view that we need to take a hard look at this stuff. The thing is we KNOW it can work, many other alternatives are much less of a sure thing.

    BTW- The problem with “experts” is that someone is paying them to reach a conclusion.

  24. phahn50 says:

    Bret BTW re experts – thats only true for financial experts :)

  25. Bob S says:

    Nuclear I think is the only viable alternative to fossil fuels in terms of having an ability to power this country into the future. Wind and solar can’t do it and even if they could the environmental lobby supports them in principle but seems to oppose them when specific projects are proposed. The events in Japan will at best delay nuclear for years to come. So we seem to be back to “drill baby drill”.

  26. Bob says “Nuclear I think is the only viable alternative to fossil fuels in terms of having an ability to power this country into the future. Wind and solar can’t do it…”

    Bob, Take a look at It has been calculated that if this were implemented it would generate 2-3 times the energy we currently use. Not just the electric energy we use but all energy, including gas, oil, coal, everything.

    Yes, it would be a massive undertaking to convert so much of our infrastructure. It could take 50 years or more. But it would be worth it IMO. You want to assure a clean energy supply for our children and grandchildren? There’s the road to it (pun intended).

  27. Bob S says:

    James. I question that wind and solar could do it but even if it could will it be possible to utilize the massive acreage necessary to produce that amount of energy. I just don’t believe that that the environmentalists will ever allow the huge solar collector and wind turbine farms necessary for that kind of production to ever be built. I cite Barton Mines as an example of the problem and also the wind turbine project in Mass. If you are going to fight over birds hitting windmills and acres of unsightly solar collectors, not to mention the viewshed, it will be 50 years before construction can begin. How do you run this country in the meantime if nuclear is off the table?

  28. Mervel says:

    I don’t see the reason for nuclear energy. It is expensive and the worst case options are not good. Why take the risk when we don’t have to?

    We have plenty of coal and plenty of natural gas and we have not even started developing large scale alternative energies.

    The bottom line is that nuclear is a huge pain in the rear that is not worth the hassle, better to simply give it a pass now than waste trillions on starting something that will probably always have problems and may never really come to fruition.

  29. Mervel says:

    I would much rather give a green light to hydro-fracturing technology in NYS than a green light to build another nuclear facility.

  30. phahn50 says:

    Mervel – you have put your finger on the problem. Most people like hydro-fracturing less even than nuclear. and coal – which we have plenty of – turns into acid rain and tons of atmospheric carbon. Wind turbines kill birds and some people dont like the way they look. Solar power is expensive and also looks weird. Nothing is perfect.

    Actually conservation is the cheapest, least harmful “source” of energy.

  31. Mervel says:


  32. Bret4207 says:

    Every answer seems to have it’s problems. I can understand the reluctance to go with nuclear, or even with clean coal. I don’t understand the reluctance when the “problem” is basically one of aesthetics. I can; think of anything more surely selfish than stopping something that would benefit the majority of s purely because of looks, ie- “Frankentree”, windmills, solar farms, etc.

    I truly wonder if some people wouldn’t prefer us to be without electricity, water systems. flush toilets, heat, etc. It may not be true, but the results will be the same, we have to have SOMETHING that works. It’s kind of like those that realize the Federal and State budgets need to be cut, but they just can’t bring themselves to make that first choice.

  33. phahn50 says:

    Bret I agree but I would add to the simile – Its kind of like those that realize the Federal and State budgets need to be cut, but they only want to cut the stuff they dont like because they dont like it.

  34. Pete Klein says:

    The easiest solution to our energy and global warming problems is to gradually but steadily reduce the world population.

  35. phahn50 says:

    Pete – like they are doing in Libya?

  36. Mervel says:

    We don’t need new nuclear power plants because we have plenty of other alternatives that cost less and are less dangerous. In my opinion it will never be safe enough because humans always make errors and the cost of errors in this area are too large in my opinion. Cheap electricity is not worth that cost. How can we say that this is safe how can we listen to the same arguments that the people who gave us the Exxon Valdez and the Gulf Oil Spill made about those industries?

  37. myown says:

    If nuclear power had to compete in the free market (that conservatives like to pretend exists) not another plant would be built. It only exists because of billions of government subsidies. And, we still have no acceptable plan for storing the waste that is radioactive for thousands of years – but the government has agreed to pay for that regardless of the cost. The government also subsidizes/limits damages from any nuclear accident. Who else gets a great taxpayer funded deal like that? Nuclear power subsidies to a handful of big corporations like GE should be high on the list for anyone serious about cutting government spending.

  38. Mervel says:

    Exactly!! Nuclear power is not only dangerous it is uneconomical unless the government is footing the bill.

  39. Paul says:

    The risks are real there is no doubt about that. But in Japan they simply do not have the options that we have here in the US.

    Once the US is closer to being out of options we will no longer have the luxury of a debate like this.

  40. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Finally this debate is getting around to the real point, nuclear power is un-economical.

    I think we SHOULD have an “all of the above” energy policy but it should also be a smart energy policy. The cheapest energy we have is the energy we don’t use therefor the most important track on energy policy should be on conservation and efficiency measures. I heard recently (and have no direct knowledge of this) that our energy usage for the last three years was actually lower than previous years. If true that is very encouraging.

    To get back to the supply side Canada is willing to sell us huge amounts of electricity at bargain rates. I am not thrilled with the way they are generating it but the dams are in. But one of the biggest problems with generating most of our energy at large powerplants, no matter what the fuel, is that there is a tremendous loss of energy in transmission. We should be looking to sources of energy that can be placed close to where they are used.

    Nuclear technology is still in its’ infancy and we should continue research to improve it, but we should be working on other technologies that are easier and have better potential for creating safe, clean energy in a much shorter term–energy that we don’t have to rely on people a thousand years in the future to resolve the problems.

  41. Paul says:

    “I heard recently (and have no direct knowledge of this) that our energy usage for the last three years was actually lower than previous years. If true that is very encouraging.”

    Knuck, I think this is true. It is probably due to the down turn in the economy.

  42. Bob,

    Did you visit the link I provided? They would use acreage already paved. Watch it the videos there. We already have the technology to do what they are proposing. it is just an engineering and manufacturing problem. We’re supposed to be good at that stuff. I think that the Solar Roadways idea is something we should be excited about because it solves a whole string of problems at once.

  43. tootightmike says:

    If you fly into any sizeable American city, you see a band covering many thousands of acres of asphalt parking lots and asphalt roofs on industrial and warehouse-type buildings. Even around here, there are acres and acres of flat roofed schools and shopping centers and their surrounding parking lots. Solar collectors could be located on these areas without hurting a single blade of grass.
    Nuclear is a big subsidy scam. There is no such thing as clean coal. Hydro-fracking will turn the east into a poisonous nightmare. If we level the playing field, and make the parties pay for their own messes, nuclear, coal, gas and oil will all fold up and go home. That will leave only the sustainables and that’s where I’m heading.

  44. Bret4207 says:

    The solar roadway is a great idea, except for the problems with it. Maybe misunderstood the idea, but we’re still talking about solar, which means storage, which means batteries, inverters,etc. Solar means rare earth minerals which the Chinese currently have a lock on $$$, batteries are their own environmental nightmare, then there’s the whole “snow covered in winter unless you use salt” issue. So, yeah, it’s a neat idea, but it has it’s own set of issues beyond tearing up roadways and rebuilding them. That;s all fine, but lets pretend it;s easy or cheap.

  45. PNElba says:

    Wind and solar are so ‘last year’. We need a ten year national plan to develop 5th and 6th generation means of energy production. How about artificial photosynthesis? If plants can get energy from the sun, why can’t we? Artificial photosynthesis harnesses energy from the sun to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be used as fuel for an internal combustion engine. Or, the hydrogen and oxygen can be recombined in a fuel cell to make electricity. And that is just the light reaction. The dark reaction takes carbon dioxide and, theoretically, could convert it into oils. How about taking all the money used to research nuclear fusion and spend it on research on artificial photosynthesis?

  46. Mervel says:

    Yes I agree. Why not use the stimulus money or the money we waste on the Space Bus for things like you mention, this is the future this is what we need to be looking at.

  47. scratchy says:

    Have all the politicians get together and start talking in front of a big windmill. All the hot air will be enough to meet our energy needs.

  48. phahn50 says:

    If we put the kind of effort into new energy sources that we now put into cancer research, we could probably get there. But the “there” is still 50 years away. We need everything else in the meantime. And back to Brian’s question – this mens the end of nuclear for a while – which it shouldnt. This risk (whats happening in Japan) has always been there. Its a huge disaster, but the rest of the time….

  49. The Solar Roadway concept includes heating the road. It would generate enough energy to keep itself snow/ice free and supply our other needs. it would become the power grid (no more power lines to build/maintain), the information grid (telephone & Internet) and because it would be a grid services could easily be switched around problems or damaged areas. Yes. it would take energy to build. So do nuclear plants, so do refineries, it takes oil and energy to build and maintain the roads we have. Rolling all these things together would probably not require any more energy investment than the combined energy to do them all separately.

  50. Brian says:

    Nuclear was always a bad fit with the United States. Japan and France, cited as nuclear models, are highly centralized states with strict regulations. The United States is a highly decentralized country with a strong hostility to regulation.

    From what I was once told by a pro-nuclear person, France mandates that all nuclear plants are constructed the same way with the same technology and parts. Such uniformity enhances safety and facilitates maintenance. This is something else that would never happen in the United States, which rejects on principle such top down strategy.

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