Ziemer: Fear of a nuclear planet

BY JEREMY ZIEMER | JUNE 19, 2013 5:00 AM

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This past week, I registered for a half-Ironman triathlon in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The race involves a 1.2-mile swim in splendid Lake Michigan, a 56-mile bike portion along the lakefront, and a 13.1-mile run. I was immediately thrilled about signing up.

However, the thrill lasted all of two minutes, until I mentioned to my friend, a doctoral student in the Physics Department at Michigan State University, that I would be swimming at a beach in Benton Harbor.

Apparently, Benton Harbor might not the best place in the world to swim. The 46-year old Palisades nuclear-power plant 18 miles up-shore from the swimming location has a history of leaking radioactive materials. In fact, just this past May, it leaked 80 gallons of radioactive water into Lake Michigan and had to be shut down.

An immediate sense of fear and frustration set in for me. The race looked as though it would have been a lot of fun. I have completed a handful of triathlons in Lake Michigan. The lake’s is probably the best water that I have swum in. Water clarity is great, and the beaches are typically excellent.

But, now I find out that the water that I would swim in may be affected by a radioactive leak from a junky old nuclear-power plant just up the shore, and my instant reaction is, “This can’t be good for anybody — I want to get out of this.”

I did some research to find out more about the power plant and the leak. After all, these races are not cheap (not to mention nonrefundable).

My initial discoveries were bleak. It turns out the Palisades plant has a long history of problems. Its first shutdown happened about one-and-a-half years after it opened. More recently, this year’s leak is the third problem with the plant since 2011, when its safety rating was downgraded to one of the worst four nuclear-power plants in the country. Since then, a 38-gallon leak limit per day has been in place, and last year the plant was upgraded to one of the best safety ratings in the country. That was before the leak this year.

As I consider whether I should still do the triathlon, I am reminded of the promise of nuclear power when I was growing up. Its benefits seemed endless and its costs and risks bearable. I am still in awe of our ability to harness such a great source of energy.

Yet, as a society, we have not fully embraced this resource largely because of the stigma attached to the fear of nuclear-power-related disasters. Public opinion has a tendency to shun nuclear power after accidents and embrace it after time passes.

I can sympathize with this. My immediate reaction to finding out about the leak near where I will swim was fear and a desire to back out of the race. Yet, this proves more about fear and reactionism than anything else.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission deemed the leak insignificant to public health, and it seems that I have nothing to worry about. My fears have been assuaged — at least for now.

But knee-jerk reactions like mine hurt progress on nuclear power. We need to be willing to educate ourselves further on these problems and be more open to using such a plentiful resource.

If we reduce the risks of nuclear power by building and maintaining better nuclear-power plants and strengthening the nuclear-regulatory structure, the benefits are too good to pass up.

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