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Accidents dim hopes for green nuclear option

The recent earthquake in Japan and accidents at two German power plants raise questions on the safety of nuclear energy as a cleaner alternative.

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As concern about global warming has swelled in recent years, so has renewed interest in nuclear energy. The main reason: Nuclear plants produce no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases tied to climate change, at least not directly.

New reactor designs make plants safer than those operating in the days of the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island decades ago, advocates say. And there's no group of OPEC countries in unstable parts of the world controlling the main raw material – uranium.

But that was before an earthquake in Japan this week rattled the Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant. The plant's operator "said it had found more than 50 problems at the plant caused by Monday's earthquake," The New York Times reported, adding:

"While most of the problems were minor, the largest included 100 drums of radioactive waste that had fallen over, causing the lids on some of the drums to open, the company said.... The company said that the earthquake also caused a small fire at the plant, the world's largest by amount of electricity produced, and the leakage of 317 gallons of water containing trace levels of radioactive materials into the nearby Sea of Japan."

Meanwhile, accidents at two German nuclear reactors last month prompted German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel to call for the early shutdown of all older reactors there, reports Bloomberg News.

Concern about the safety of Germany's 17 reactors has grown after a fire at Vattenfall's Kruemmel site June 28 and a network fault at its Brunsbuettel plant on the same day. Der Spiegel online adds:

"It took the fire department hours to extinguish the blaze. Even worse, the plant operator's claim that a fire in the transformer had no effect on the reactor itself proved to be a lie.

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