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Tremors from nuclear disaster could shake South

March 16, 2011

Somewhere at the bottom of a box full of yellowing newspaper clips, there’s a photograph of an impossibly overloaded microphone stand at the command center podium where press conferences were held during the height of the Three Mile Island nuclear emergency in 1979. Long after anything I wrote during those tense days was forgotten, that image has endured: a precarious Babel of microphones, all straining to pick up so little information.

I’ve thought of that picture a lot in the past few days.

I wrote about nuclear energy before I wrote about politics, a testament both to the longevity of my career and the nuclear power industry. I was already an editor when the nation was jolted by a new kind of disaster at a plant outside Harrisburg, Pa., but I was still well-versed enough in what had been a slow beat to get the assignment.

 It was as strange as any story I’d ever covered. My photographer and I tramped around empty streets, searching for some visible evidence of the disaster, and showed up for news briefings, hanging on every expert word in an effort to comprehend what we should be worried about. Through a friend, I tracked down a professor at Georgia Tech who predicted the zirconium cladding in the reactor core would become embrittled and fall in, rendering it forever useless.

As a scoop, this was on the technical side, but in the long run it turned out to be the real story. There was no immediate disaster, no clear connection between the accident and any future health effects, but the pile on the reactor floor put a stop to the development of the nuclear industry for 30 years.

One of the maddening things about the disaster at the Fukushima plant has been the insistence on rating its seriousness on that seven-tiered scale, on which Three Mile Island is at the fifth level. It should have been obvious from the beginning that this accident, coming on the heels of the worst natural disaster Japan has ever seen, was something on a new order of magnitude – not as horrific in its toll as Chernobyl, we hope, but much closer, for all the distance, to home.

We live in a world where the biggest underwriter of cancer insurance for the Japanese is  headquartered in Columbus, Ga. On a globe grown that small, the crisis on the coast of Japan is likely to shake the economy and ultimately the politics of the South.

Going back to Oak Ridge, the South has a long connection with the nuclear power industry. It’s not surprising that the first utilities to break the 32-year-long halt to construction have been Southern Co. and SCANA, each of which is seeking operating licenses for two new reactors at their Plant Vogtle and Plant Summer sites. A common story on Southern newspaper websites this week has been the scramble by utility executives, public service commissioners and others connected to the industry to put the best face on the situation, while voicing a proper caution about the potential lessons to be learned from Fukushima.

But the concerns raised by this disaster aren’t of the sort that can be soothed by public relations. The halt to new plant construction has been widely misunderstood as the result of public safety concerns stirred by Three Mile Island, but private concerns about the investment risks revealed by the accident played the decisive role.

It’s the market that will have to be reassured about nuclear power. And even if the crisis were to improve as quickly as it seems, at this writing, to be deteriorating, there will still be six enormously expensive reactors that will never produce another watt of electricity, and will present their owners with a cleanup job of epic proportions. That’s the best-case scenario, and it’s not good.

With a desperate battle still being waged to contain the release of radioactive material from the plant, we don’t know precisely what this disaster means for the world, much less this region. Some could be quite unforeseen: The discovery of vast reserves of natural gas in shale fields in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama over the past few years has had the potential to be a transformative economic development. A longer delay in nuclear development could speed that transformation. Other repercussions, for a region which is a center of Japanese manufacturing investment, won’t be so sanguine.

From the perspective of the world, this combination earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown underscores the lesson that the old distinctions between the works of man and the works of nature are fraying, and increasingly, every disaster is an environmental disaster. In combination with the revolt sweeping the Arab world, it should make Americans more mindful of how dangerous a world they live in, and thus affect next year’s presidential election in a profound way.




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