Newspaper: The Sentinel

Date: April 6, 1979

Article: Nuclear plants safe, episode shows

Author: William Rusher


NEW YORK - Press and public reaction to the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania dramatically illustrates how difficult it is in a democracy to discuss nuclear power calmly, let alone reach national decisions regarding its use.

Public awareness of nuclear energy was born in that awesome mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, and has never really shaken free of that image. There are undoubtedly many millions of Americans who sincerely believe that, if the right combination of accidents occurred, a similar explosion could take place at Middletown, Pa. Now, as it happens, that one thing - in fact, very nearly the only thing - that could not possibly occur; the technology required to produce an atomic bomb is wildly different from that used to produce electrically by nuclear means. But how can the average housewife be expected to understand that?

A MORE POPULAR scenario, because it is at least technically conceivable, is the one forever being pushed by the foes of nuclear energy: Some mechanical accident occurs that ruptures or otherwise evades the containment systems surrounding a nuclear reactor, and nuclear energy in one form or another (usually wastes) spews out into the environment.

Given that hypothesis, all one has to do is 1) imagine that the quantity of contaminated material is large enough, 2) imagine that winds or other natural means capable of spreading it do in fact arise and do their job, and 3) imagine that the winds or whatever spread the contaminated material where it will do the maximum harm - and presto! There's your nuclear disaster.

Since such an event is, as I have said, at least technically conceivable, all the supporters of nuclear energy can do is point out, rather lamely, that is extremely unlikely, and that no such disaster has ever occurred. As a matter of fact, it remains as true today as it was before the Three Mile Island accident that there has never yet been a single fatality as a result of a nuclear accident of any type in any American commercial reactor.

But doesn't the Three Mile Island episode suggest that the disaster scenario is likelier than we had been led to believe? After all, a mechanical accident did occur; contaminated wastes did get out into the environment; and increased radiation levels were detected miles away.

ON THE CONTRARY, this episode illustrates vividly just how safe a nuclear power plant is. When the accident occurred, the safety control automatically began to close down the reactor. When, as a result of a separate but simultaneous accident, contaminated wastes did reach the outer environment, they were far below dangerous levels. The significant fact is not how much happened, but how little.

None of this however, will prevent the foes of nuclear power from opportunizing gaudily, or reassure average citizens who understandably fear dangers not disclosed by their five senses. "Detectable levels of increased radiation have spread over a four - country area," the New York Times reported. The statement is quite true, but what danger, if any does the radiation pose to the public? A Harvard biology professor, long known for his support of leftist causes, dashes into the area and purports to answer the question: "Any dose is unsafe" - literally any at all. A hard man to please! Yet the same Times article quotes state officials as saying that the very highest levels of radiation detected anywhere outside the plant would expose, over a period of an hour to about as much radiation as one receives in less than a second from an ordinary dental X-ray.

The Clamshell Alliance and the leftist Harvard professor may yet get their way and stop nuclear energy in this country dead in its tracks. (It is being expanded briskly everywhere else.) In that case, we will clearly have to increase coal consumption sharply. In 1977 there were 139 fatal accidents in American coal mines. In the five preceding years, the average was 143 per year. What kind of mentality is it that can compare those figures with the brilliant 30-year record of the American nuclear power industry and call nuclear power unacceptably unsafe?