Nuclear Columbine

, former director, Nuclear Safety Project | June 16, 2015, 6:00 am EDT
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Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #57

From Charles Whitman killing 16 people with shots fired from a tower on the University of Texas at Austin campus on August 1, 1966, to two students killing 13 people by gunfire at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, to a gunmen killing 32 people at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, to a young man fatally shooting 20 children and 6 staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, and many other incidents, school shootings have tragically claimed too many innocent lives and given too many families irreplaceable, unforgettable losses.

The United States could have reacted to Whitman’s rampage by closing all public and private schools. That action would have absolutely prevented school shootings and their tragic consequences.

Instead, the United States chose to sustain the benefits from formal education while pursuing measures intended to make schools as safe as possible. While school shootings have continued, I recall the comments made by William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, after Columbine. Bennett observed that while you could count the times the safety measures failed, you could not count the times they succeeded in averting tragedies. Rather than suggesting that occasional school shootings were “acceptable losses,” Bennett emphasized the vital role for safety and security in our educational system.

This education situation is similar to our longstanding position on nuclear power. Nuclear power became one of UCS’s focus areas shortly after the organization was formed in May 1969. Nuclear power provides certain benefits by producing large amounts of energy from a relatively small environmental footprint. But the consequences from nuclear mis-steps can be extremely costly. UCS has consistently focused on identifying nuclear power plant safety shortcomings and advocating their solutions. The nuclear plant accidents at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011) has not altered that focus.

Bottom Line

One of two things would need to happen to move UCS into adopting either a pro-nuclear power or an anti-nuclear power position.

First, we could become unable to find nuclear power plant safety shortcomings if all operating reactors complied with applicable regulations or if all operating reactors were inherently safe. With only benefits to be captured and no costly consequences to be experienced, nuclear power could be embraced by UCS.

Second, we could become unable to find appropriate solutions for nuclear power plant safety shortcomings. With benefits to be derived only at undue risk of costly consequences, nuclear power would likely be opposed by UCS.

Until then, UCS will continue looking for nuclear safety problems and calling for their resolutions.


The UCS Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit (NEAT) is a series of post intended to help citizens understand nuclear technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s processes for overseeing nuclear plant safety.

Posted in: Activist Toolkit, Nuclear Power Safety Tags: ,

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  • JohnGreenberg

    “… we could become unable to find appropriate solutions for
    nuclear power plant safety shortcomings. With benefits to be derived only at
    undue risk of costly consequences, nuclear power would likely be opposed by

    With great respect, I suggest that the first sentence asks
    the wrong question, and that therefore the second doesn’t follow from it.

    Instead of asking whether nuclear’s safety shortcomings CAN
    be solved, I submit that the correct question is this: can we generate the same
    amounts of power with lesser impact?
    Nuclear’s benefits are supposed to be its production of electrical energy
    at relatively low cost and with relatively little environmental and safety

    I use the word “relatively” advisedly: if other forms of
    generation can produce the same amounts of power with similar (or lower) cost
    and with similar (or less) environmental and safety harm, then it would make
    little sense to continue using the more expensive and riskier source,
    regardless of whether its shortcomings are POTENTIALLY soluble.

    I’m not trying to ANSWER the question here. I’m trying to reframe it correctly.

    Similarly, another question needs to be raised. There are often “appropriate solutions” to
    problems which, the NRC theoretically adopts as regulations. Alternatively, the industry could address the
    problems on its own, without further mandates from regulators. But in the real world, quite often neither

    Thus, for one example, nuclear plants are required to have
    emergency plans which include evacuation in the event of radiation spreading
    offsite. Yet, when interveners showed
    that the Seabrook plant could NOT realistically be evacuated in a timely
    fashion, the NRC simply changed the rules to accommodate the plant’s reality.
    (Not coincidentally, billions of dollars had already been spent on its

    I’m not an expert, but having followed nuclear issues for
    some time now, in my experience what I’ve just described is the rule, – not the
    exception. The only reason it doesn’t
    occur more frequently, I submit, is that intervention is exceedingly expensive
    and almost never productive; hence, many shortcomings are never adequately

    If any of this is so, then the mere EXISTENCE of “appropriate
    solutions” is not enough. The solutions
    in question must be actualized, not merely hypothetical, and as UCS itself has
    pointed out repeatedly over the years, that’s simply NOT what actually happens.

    I appreciate David Lochbaum’s succinct resume of UCS’s
    position, but for the reasons just explained, I do not find it at all

    Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear (Chernobyl, Fukishima)
    that the real risks of nuclear power are FAR from hypothetical: the probability
    of such events is far greater than the experts predicted and their magnitude is
    at least as bad as imagined. Conversely,
    the costs of alternative forms of generating has declined to a point where
    takings these risks no longer makes either environmental sense (which in my
    view – to lay my cars on the table – it never did) NOR economic sense.

  • dinkydave

    Good post, John Greenberg. OK, TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima, to name just the most famous accidents we actually know about. Adding to permanent disposal of spent fuel and other radwaste, to which no one seems to have good answers–long term survival of human race seems at stake. In addition to climate change and ocean acidification, time for whole human race to get to work! btw, just skimmed while down loading Pope’s latest 184 page document. Same general as this thread, highly recommended for “all people of good will.”

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