LAST YEAR’S tragedy in three parts — an earthquake, a tsunami, and the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — is known in Japan simply as 3/11. The suffering of so many will be remembered today, as will Japan’s resiliency in the year since. While the earthquake and tsunami were nature’s doing, the failures at Fukushima exposed fundamental safety and regulatory gaps. The disaster furthered the view that nuclear energy is “unsafe at any speed,’’ but that would be the wrong lesson for the United States.
The response to the Fukushima meltdown was deeply flawed. But with nearly 20 percent of America’s energy coming from nuclear energy, abandoning it is not a realistic option. Recognizing that, the Obama administration is likely to approve four new reactors by year’s end.
Given the unthinkable consequences of any nuclear meltdown, effective oversight requires an honest assessment of risk. This includes a rule that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission take into account extreme circumstances that might compromise a reactor, such as the Missouri River flooding that closed a Nebraska facility last year. At the very time that a unified commission is necessary to implement its ongoing Fukushima review, the majority of NRC members seem more interested in challenging its aggressive chairman, Gregory Jaczko. That’s got to change.
Locally, efforts by Attorney General Martha Coakley and the public to demand greater transparency and input into relicensing of the Pilgrim nuclear facility in Plymouth - the only facility with a Fukushima-like design that is currently before the commission - will only generate greater confidence in nuclear safety. The industry’s continuing opposition to an appropriate level of oversight is self-destructive and dangerous.
Because nuclear energy provides carbon-emissions-free electricity, it needs to be part of a long-term national energy strategy. But Fukushima is a cautionary tale that will never be forgotten, and must be heeded.