My mom wanted a ride to the local Costco the other day, and being a dutiful if somewhat disappointing son, I grudgingly obliged. We climbed into her gleaming Toyota Avalon, drove northeast through crumbling downtown Spring City, crossed the Schuylkill River into Royersford, made our way onto Route 422 west, and a couple miles later our eyes fell past the sprawling retail complex and beheld the twin colossus in Costco’s backyard.
Of course, I’ve been aware of the Limerick Generating Station’s uncomfortable proximity to the well-appointed, squeaky-clean subdivision where my mom and sister bought their handsome new house three years ago. But it’s easy to avert your eyes and consciousness from a looming terror when it sits seven miles away, sleepily belching vapors into the atmosphere. When it’s right next door, it’s another story entirely.
Sure, the General Electric-made boiling water reactors at Limerick are not much different than their notorious cousins that ran into a little trouble in Japan back in March. They even have the same spent fuel pools sitting outside the primary containment vessel, where they’re more likely to radiate the environment – and more vulnerable to a terrorist attack – than the reactor core.
While we’re on the subject, the Union of Concerned Scientists offered this cheery analysis about spent fuel pools: “A large radiation release from a spent fuel pool could result in thousands of cancer deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in decontamination costs and economic damage. The amount of land contaminated by a release from a spent fuel pool could be significantly greater than that contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster.”
Nattering nabobs of negativism!
Fortunately, the civic-minded folks at Exelon, which counts Limerick among the 10 nuclear plants in its energy portfolio, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say there’s little reason to worry, even if our current digs lie in the “Primary Emergency Planning Zone.” The nuclear moguls and industry “regulators” have another name for the 10-mile cordon of death and disfigurement surrounding the power plant: the “Plume Exposure Pathway Zone.”
I love the sanitized terminology our nuclear overlords conjured up to describe the calamity that would befall residents in the event of a catastrophic failure at the local power plant.
It might be more fitting and proper to call this area, for hypothetical planning purposes only, the “Primary Incineration Zone.” Or at least the “Cancer Exposure Neighborhood.”
Of course, the worries of the local population are small beer when seen against the backdrop of the larger disaster-in-waiting. Philadelphia lies 25 or so miles to the southeast, and more than eight million people live within the 50-mile “Ingestion Pathway Zone,” aka the “You’re Fucked Too Zone.”
Again, not to worry. In the unlikely event of a Fukushima on the Schuylkill, Exelon (it does remind me of Excellent!) and its partners at the NRC have spared no expense to make sure residents are well drilled on emergency protocol. I mean, everything you need to know can be found in the local phone book, pages 8-12.
I found it under the heading “Emergency Planning for the Limerick Area,” subheaded “NUCLEAR POWER AND PUBLIC SAFETY.”
The first section is titled “Benefits and Risks of Nuclear Power.”
“Used properly, nuclear fission (the splitting of uranium atoms) is a safe, dependable source of electricity.”
It is always best to deliver the good news first.
It is reasonable, the literature allows, to be concerned about the possibility of an accident. Concern, however, should not be confused with fear. Or worse, critical thinking. Because, in the end, the bad news is not really all that bad.
A quick breakdown of the good news about the bad news:
1: A power plant cannot produce a nuclear explosion.
2: As for radiation, the complex structure of a nuclear power plant is designed to prevent the release of radiation.
And 3 (if you’re really insistent on being a Negative Nelly): Special plans have already been developed to protect the public in the event of a nuclear incident in your area.
Over the next four pages, it goes on to describe warning sirens, emergency protocol (including the deliciousness of potassium iodide), the classification of accidents, evacuation routes, reception centers and transportation assistance numbers.
It would be just mean-spirited to point out that a 1984 study, completed in the aftermath of Three Mile Island, found that these same emergency plans would result in little more than chaos, traffic jams, and more chaos in the event of, like they used to say in radio tests of the emergency broadcast system, a real emergency.
As for my mom and sister, they’ve managed to hew to the Don’t Worry, Be Happy script written for them by their friends and neighbors, the nuclear power magnates. And why not? Just take a gander at the pastoral view they have right out their back door:
Alas, if you pivot 45 degrees to the northeast, you get an entirely different panorama.
Just for laughs, I asked my sister to describe her personal emergency plan.
“My plan is no plan,” she said. “We’ll go right up in smoke. While everyone else is waiting for their faces to melt off, we’ll go up in a flash. That’s the nice thing about living so close.”
In any case, only a diehard cynic or a wacky 99 Percenter would worry that the Exelons of the world would ever place profits above public safety.
Trust Exelon? Why not? Maybe the utility giant has a few blemishes on its resume. But that, to quote the Simpsons, is why pencils have erasers. So what if the state of Illinois and Exelon conspired to wait four years, until 2006, to disclose that the Braidwood nuclear plant, 60 miles from Chicago, had spilled millions of gallons of radioactive tritium over the course of a decade? In the end, when it saw fit to report the news, Exelon described the public health risk from the leaks as “minimal.”
And I for one see no reason to doubt Exelon’s excellent word.
Speaking of the Simpsons, Exelon was hit with a $65,000 fine two years ago for permitting contracted security guards to sleep on the job at Pennsylvania’s Peach Bottom nuclear plant. Again, so what? A well-rested security guard is a vigilant security guard.
(Simpsons update: Did you hear they found Blinky in Argentina?)
And there’s no cause to worry about Exelon’s political clout. When the 21st century corporate beast known as Exelon came into being by marrying Philadelphia’s PECO Energy Co. and Chicago’s Unicom, Rahm Emanuel and Goldman Sachs were key players on the Unicom side in guiding the merger to fruition.
Rahm Emanuel and Goldman Sachs, why, they’re just like State Farm and AllState. Good neighbors with good hands.
Even if I were the type to worry about events like, say, a meltdown at the local power plant, I should be comforted by statistics that reveal just how unlikely such a calamity is. Perhaps millions of gallons of tritium are leaching into the Schuylkill as I type this, but I’m comforted by the knowledge that, in a few years, Exelon will tell me health risks from the leak are minimal.
In any case, it’s not like we’re located on a volatile seismic fault and sitting just a few miles inland from the angry Atlantic Ocean. Maybe folks in California should worry about a Fukushima in their backyard. Not me.
In 2008, the the NRC updated its list of the nation’s 104 nuclear plants, ranked in order of the highest risk of an earthquake causing core damage.
Limerick comes in at … No. 3. With a bullet.
We are No. 3! We are No. 3! We are No. 3!
The NRC estimates the chances of an earthquake producing a nuclear emergency at Limerick at 1 in 18,868. That’s up 141 percent from the previous study, done in 1989. Topping the devastation poll, at 1 in 10,000, is Indian Point on the Hudson River, just 24 miles north of New York City.
Remember: Don’t worry. After all, upon disclosing the updated estimates, the NRC itself said that “Operating nuclear power plants are safe.”
And that they are. Across the nation’s 104 nuclear plants, the NRC estimates there’s a 1 in 74,176 chance each year that an earthquake will trigger an accident that will expose the public to radiation. As MSNBC’s Bill Dedman points out in his story about the NRC’s earthquake rankings, those are outrageously long odds, only 10 times more likely than the chances of seeing a single Powerball ticket turn into a $10,000 windfall (1 in 723,145).
So buy those lottery tickets, and if you’ve already bought a home in the shadow of a nuclear colossus, congratulate yourself on having the good sense to dismiss the hand-wringers and skeptics and enjoy the safety of atomic power.
Besides, having a nuclear power plant in your backyard presents all sorts of unusual and wonderful photo opportunities.