We heard today of the unfortunate episode at the Marcoule nuclear plant in southern France. One person was killed and four were seriously injured when some industrial equipment exploded.
It’s worth noting that the actual nuclear components of the plant weren’t the part that malfunctioned, nor were they harmed in the blast. In fact, radioactive ions or the spent fuel in the radioactive cooling ponds wasn’t even touched. Yet it caps what has been a terribly unfortunate year from the nuclear energy industry. There was of course the complete core meltdown in Reactor 3 at the Fukushima plant in Japan. Then the hiccups with nuke plants in Virginia and California. And now this.
The safety risks associated with nuclear are undeniable, especially considering the questions of longevity. The most radioactive components of spent fuel stay hot and toxic for over 10,000 years. And plants built on active tectonic faults clearly pose problems in earthquakes, which do happen, even in unlikely places. So short-term decision making simply won’t cut it.
Yet it’s unfortunate that nuclear energy, certainly a bridge toward other cleaner, efficient and reliable energies — as well as our link to advanced technology in the form of nuclear fusion, the holy grail in atomic energy — has gotten so dragged down by headlines. U.S. nuclear regulators certainly deserve scrutiny and constant attention, but the safeguards in place usually tend to outweigh the flash-in-the-pan frenzy after any such snafu, no matter how small.
By pure coincidence, the International Atomic Energy Agency is meeting this week in Vienna. The agency’s 35-member board is expected to boost global nuclear safeguards worldwide. But the important point in comments made by IAEA director Yukio Amano is that it’s not nuclear power plants he’s worried about. It’s the weapons-producing countries that keep him awake. And namely, Iran.