When Forbes magazine gleefully headlined its recent article on the re-emergence of nuclear power “The Silence of the Nuke Protesters,” it was, in a way, taunting the complacency of Springfield. “Atomic power is making a comeback,” read the accompanying blurb, “and you hear only muffled squawks from the usual opponents. Could that have something to do with the price of oil? Or maybe global warming?” The example cited in the article as evidence that opposition to nuclear power is fading was a December hearing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in nearby Clinton, Ill. Few spoke in opposition to plans to build at Clinton the first new U.S. nuclear reactor in 25 years.

Consider this another muffled squawk from one of the usual opponents, if you will. But another Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing in Clinton is coming up on April 19, and there are plenty of reasons for people concerned about a safe environment and a sane energy future to show up and speak up. Although the NRC recently announced that its initial study has concluded that no environmental problems stand in the way of a second reactor at Clinton, anybody who knows nuclear power understands that this is a conclusion based on narrow considerations about the Clinton site by regulators who promote nuclear power by ignoring huge environmental problems with the industry as a whole. If nothing else, pointing out the known environmental dangers may keep national business magazines from crowing about our silence and implying our stupidity.

Some who are concerned about the environment may have bought into the industry’s claim that nuclear power is a clean-air alternative to coal-burning power plants. But that argument ignores the fact that greenhouse gases are produced in the processing of uranium fuel, and the amount will increase drastically when current supplies of higher-yield uranium ore run out, forcing the industry to use less efficient grades. While nuclear plants are legally permitted to emit only low levels of radiation, there is no safe level of radiation exposure, which can cause cancer or miscarriage. Recent research has also indicated that chronic exposure to lower levels may be far more harmful than previously thought, questioning the wisdom of permitting even more exposure until this issue is resolved.

Nobody denies that nuclear-power generation produces a waste product that is among the deadliest substances known or that this spent nuclear fuel remains highly radioactive for thousands of years. All agree, therefore, that nuclear spent fuel must be isolated from the environment practically forever. The nuclear industry touts the safety of its storage casks and assures us that the U.S. government can be trusted to guard the stuff in a repository being prepared deep in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. But the people of Nevada, and others who care for the earth, think it unwise and irresponsible to continue to manufacture waste that is so lethal for so long. An earthquake or an enemy attack a thousand years from now could bring devastation that would make it clear that the 21st-century nuclear-power industry was the height of folly and greed.

It is difficult to get Americans to focus on the environmental problems they are leaving to future generations, but the threat of terrorism hits closer to home. Since 9/11 the nuclear industry has beefed up security at its operating power plants, although it has kept its new measures secret. This is understandable; interviews of captured al-Qaeda operatives have revealed that reactors are among their potential targets. The National Academy of Sciences recently recommended that reactors store their spent fuel in dry casks rather than in swimming pools to make it less vulnerable to terrorist attack. The Nuclear Energy Information Service says some older-style reactors operated by Exelon Corp. in Illinois — at Morris, LaSalle, and the Quad Cities — store their fuel on top of their reactors, outside the containment structure, making them particularly vulnerable to airplane attack. Exelon says it has no plans to change its storage method, and the NRC dismisses airplane crashes as “unrealistic scenarios.”

Plans to expand the U.S. nuclear-power industry, beginning in Clinton, Ill., are going on right now in our own back yard. So far the proposal to give fast-track approval to a second reactor at Clinton has had little opposition. Forbes is right to ask, “Where are the protesters?”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s hearing for public comment on the Clinton environmental report is scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 19, at the Vespasian Warner Public Library in Clinton. Persons who wish to speak must register by Wednesday, April 13, by calling 800-368-5642, ext. 3835, or by sending an e-mail to eis@nrc.gov. They may also register at the Clinton library at least 30 minutes before the start of the meeting.

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