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Crystal River nuclear plant poses no big threat

When we see what's going on in Japan, most of us probably aren't that worried about our own safety.

The Progress Energy nuclear power plant in Crystal River has been humming along without a major incident for 34 years. It is designed to withstand the most severe hurricane and, since shortly after 9/11, even a rogue jetliner. The likelihood of it being hit with an earthquake anywhere near as severe as the one that hit Japan last week is right up there with the Gulf of Mexico freezing over. Plus, the plant has been closed since late 2009 for repairs.

For most people, the more pressing emotions are sympathy for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami, and admiration for the power plant workers trying to stave off a complete meltdown.

But somewhere along the line, surely, it's occurred to you that there's a nuclear plant in a neighboring county, and that it's about the same age as the ominously steaming, periodically exploding hulk we've been obsessively monitoring for the past week, the Fukushima Daiichi complex in Japan.

Chances are, you've wondered whether a similar disaster could happen here and how well prepared we are to deal with it — and, looking further down the line, whether it's really a good idea for Progress Energy to build those planned nuclear reactors in Levy County.

Speaking just as a resident of Hernando County — a layperson who's spent a couple of days interviewing experts and reviewing websites — I'm not too worried.

True, nuclear plants can never be completely safe. It's just that, as we know from last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster, every form of energy carries environmental hazards. And my main long-term concern is climate change. The number one challenge, it seems to me, is developing a reasonably safe alternative to fossil fuels.

And, even this close to a nuclear reactor, I feel reasonably safe.

For one thing, by some measures, we aren't all that close to Crystal River — 30 miles or more for most of Spring Hill and about 40 for Brooksville. Both New York City and Philadelphia are as near or nearer to a nuclear plant. Evacuation of either one would obviously be much more chaotic than fleeing the North Suncoast.

Currently, power companies and local governments are required to set up a system of loudspeakers, sirens and door-to-door notifications to get the word out to people within 10 miles of a plant even if the grid goes down.

Given the U.S. government's recommendations that its citizens should stay at least 50 miles away from Fukushima, there's talk that this zone should be expanded.

Sounds good to me, though I should point out that, in the event of a catastrophe, we're not expected to stay put. Cecilia Patella, Hernando's emergency management direct, said the county would be notified in case of a nuclear emergency and that her department has an evacuation plan in place.

At least one problem at the plant in Japan seems unlikely to occur here, even in the event of the worst tidal surge — tanks of emergency fuel being washed away. At Crystal River they are buried. Also, there's only one reactor to worry about rather than five.

Consider this, too. Every one of the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States is old, built or at least permitted before 1978 crisis at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. No member of the public was exposed to dangerous levels of radiation then or since.

And new plants are far safer. The main improvement are so-called passive safety systems. These use natural forces such as gravity and convection to keep the cooling water circulating under just about any circumstances.

"The goal is to design plants you can walk away from," said David Hintenlang, the chair of University of Florida's department of Nuclear and Radiological Engineering.

Here is the one concern that we can't ignore: the accumulation of spent, but highly radioactive fuel rods at power plants worldwide.

The Obama administration has nixed the idea of a central storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Maybe, considering that the waste storage pods at Fukushima have been a big part of the problem, the public will be more supportive of finding an alternative.

I hope so. Because I remember cheering back in the 1980s when the plans to a build a nuclear plant near my former hometown, Cincinnati, were abandoned in favor of a coal-fired plant.

I think of all the mercury spewed into the atmosphere since — all the greenhouse gasses and the components of acid rain — and I wonder what I was so worried about.

Crystal River nuclear plant poses no big threat 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 11:13am]
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