Quakes, meltdowns could all happen here
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Two events are occupying most of the free space in my head right now the Japanese earthquake/tsunami and the civil war in Libya.

It's harder to deal emotionally with bad things that happen when they are caused by bad people (wars) rather than nature (earthquakes).

I wish we could help the Libyan rebels, but recognize the problems with interfering in other countries' internal affairs. However, when one party is clearly crazy, we should make as strong a statement as possible in support of the other.

One sad effect of our own country heading down its own wrong road is that we don't have the money or surplus military assets to help as much as some of us might like. America is spread too thin in so many arenas, including here at home.

Of course, we'll respond as much as possible to requests for assistance from Japan, a country whose political structure is similar to ours (including a much worse national debt that will hurt its recovery from this disaster). While we're a long way from having to fight our own revolution against a dictatorial government, it's not hard to imagine Mother Nature pulling the ground out from under us, too.

Right here in Essex County, we're sitting on our own earthquake faults and living along a coast that could be inundated by a tsunami created either by a local quake or one traveling across the Atlantic Ocean from the volcanic Azores. However, most Americans cheerfully assume that terrible things that happen in other countries can't happen here; it's part of our charm.

So today I'm writing about nuclear power plants, a category that's a hybrid of human decision-making and potential natural disasters. I've long been unsure what to think of this power source.

I first became aware of the issue shortly after moving to Massachusetts, when the newly-formed Clamshell Alliance was fighting the Seabrook power plant just over the border in New Hampshire. I thought perhaps they were anti-Vietnam War activists just looking for a new cause. The nuclear technology seemed kind of neat, compared to oil, coal and potentially explosive gas.

But then I received a flier in my Marblehead mailbox about evacuation plans in case of an accident upwind at Seabrook. I seem to recall being assigned an interior New Hampshire community that would "take us in," and upon hearing the alarm we were to leave immediately for that town, leaving our pets behind.

I figured my family would head home to Pennsylvania instead, with the dogs and cat, so wondered if we should try to drive through the traffic jams in Lynn or those in the Salem/Peabody corridor, on the way to the highway.

The time frame mentioned in the flier was very short, so I then recalled a different flier we military families were given about how to respond to similar emergencies in foreign lands. There was a two-page list of things to do, including boarding windows, storing water in bathtubs, collecting medical supplies, etc.; and the very last item on the list was to "bend over and kiss your a** goodbye."

Around the time I saw the movie, "The China Syndrome," I saw a map showing all the nuclear power plants in the country. I was surprised to see a bunch of them in my native Pennsylvania, where my parents still lived. Wondered when that happened without anyone I knew noticing. Maybe there was no activist Keystone Alliance. Anyhow, in 1979 there was an accident at Three Mile Island. Fortunately, it was contained and no one was hurt.

Sometime later I ran into a Boston Edison executive, and asked him why Seabrook had been built on an earthquake fault.

"Don't worry," he said, "there hasn't been an earthquake here in over 200 years."

I'd hoped for a more technical answer. Didn't this mean we could be due?

His response validated a suspicion I'd been acquiring since starting work as a political activist: Many important people don't know what they're doing. Prominent among them may have been the members of Congress who passed the Price-Anderson Act, which promised to back up the nuclear plant owners for liability costs that private-sector companies wouldn't fully insure. Uh-oh, marketplace dismissed, government involved: Now I'm scared.

I did some research on the issue and asked my next question: What will you do with the nuclear waste? I learned that the primary plan, then and now, was to ship it across the country on trains through major population centers. And I'm still watching the ongoing battle over Yucca Mountain, Nev., the chosen storage site, itself located near a major earthquake fault, and near where my grandchildren live now.

In 1987, I visited Austrian friends, who carried a Geiger counter to market to check vegetables that could still be contaminated by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion.

The efficient Japanese build nuclear facilities far superior to those of the Soviet communists. Still I was surprised to see so many of them sited in the "Pacific Ring of Fire."

If Japan's hold up through the extraordinary events of the last several days, human ingenuity will have scored some points against Mother Nature. If not, or regardless, we Americans need answers to our questions about nuclear power plants here.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.

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