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October 25, 2006 | South Carolina Headlines


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Let the trucks come
Jonathan Pait
August 20, 2001

Sunday I was surprised to see the images contained in Friday’s article on the front page of The Greenville News. The information was new, but the tone of the article was the same as before.

The facts about plutonium can’t be denied. How we deal with those facts decides our attitude toward having plutonium in our state. Do we look only at the risks without seeing how the risks can be managed? If we do, then we see the worse case scenario—and we focus on the “radioactive, corrosive and explosive” aspects of the metal.

Do we stop and think of the fact that the radioactivity and corrosiveness can be controlled? Do you remember the last time you heard of plutonium exploding accidentally? Do we stop to consider the positives of nuclear energy?

No denying--plutonium is dangerous. If ingested in drinking water or breathed as a powder, the plutonium can destroy vital blood cells and cause cancer. If the plutonium is arranged in a specific way in large enough quantities, it can have a “criticality.”

We have worked with plutonium now for nearly 50 years. Not everything has been understood and mistakes have been made. However, we are much farther along in our understanding than we were in the beginning. This has lead to ways of managing the dangers of the rare metal.

It is the same with nuclear energy. Everyone likes to point to Three Mile Island and Gernobyl as instances of the dangerous consequences of generating power this way. A point may be made for Three Mile Island, but it is wrong to compare our US plants to Gernobyl. Besides, there are nuclear power plants spread through the entire world—even in Third World countries—and how often have you heard of a meltdown?

A century ago if you wanted to go someplace fast you took the train. Then some people with vision decided that we needed to fly. The Wright brothers took up their glider with a prop and the air age was born. At first it was for the brave few to take wing. Now, the airplane has replaced the train as the preferred method of travel. Sure, people like to drive, but consider that it is now statistically safer to travel by airplane than by car.

Fifty years ago nuclear science was in its infancy. Looking back we see some visionaries that might not have understood everything about the science but they recognized its potential. They made mistakes. Three Mile Island was one of them. However, that incident served as a wake up call and greater care has gone into the construction of these plants. Since then our nuclear generators have aged, but keep their integrity. These and newer plants cause less pollution than other forms of generating large amounts of power (not counting hydro-electric).

Something must be done with the waste generated up to this point. We must use the knowledge that we have acquired to begin cleaning up the mess we have made. Closing down and cleaning the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado is a step in the right direction. We can apply new methods of storage that are much safer than how Rocky Flats began.

The Savannah River Site is part of that plan. Those who would charge that SRS would simply become a new Rocky Flats, assume that we have not learned from our past—that technology has remained stagnant over the years. The fact is that SRS is one of the few places in the country that can help clean up the area in Colorado.

Realize that the plutonium will not simply come to SRS to sit there. A portion of the plutonium will be used to generate new power and at the same time reduce the isotopes to a substance not conducive to creating nuclear weapons. Remember—“pits to pellets to power.”

We also have every reason to believe that the plutonium will not remain at SRS. Way to much has been put into Yucca Mountain, Nevada to think that it will not live up to its planned use of storing this waste. Also, turning SRS into a permanent storage facility would weaken its value as a processing plant.

Oh, as for those trucks. It was pointed out in Sunday’s The Greenville News that in all the thousands of miles driven by trucks transferring plutonium there have been seven accidents. Of those accidents none of them had any serious leaks of radiation. Also, the last such accident was 20 years ago. Now, it is amazing to see the testing that the haulers are put through. I for one will not feel unsafe riding on the same road with one of these trucks. Frankly, I would probably feel safer near this convoy than most times driving down I-85!

Risks exist, they exist every time we sit there ignoring the flight attendant telling us about buckling in, looking for the flotation device... However, why is it that it is safer to fly than to drive? Simply because the risk is expected and greater care is taken to neutralize the risk. There is no reason to believe that we cannot expect the same when it comes to nuclear energy and the processing and storing of plutonium.

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