Earlier this week, the call for keeping a cool head over the still unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan seemed equally as loud as the call for alarm. For good reason, nations are not — with the exception of Germany — scrambling to power-down their nuclear power fleets. Health care professionals in the U.S. were not recommending that everyone along the West Coast ingest a potassium iodide tablet.

However, there is such a thing as playing it too cool — especially a month or two from now. If a major radiation release is avoided, there will be a temptation to write off the Fukushima Daiichi accident as an inevitable part of doing business, and to regard calls for increased regulatory scrutiny as reactionary and a ploy for the anti-nuclear agenda. Call it reverse-reactionary syndrome.

Last spring the offshore oil and gas community declared their very future was in jeopardy when President Obama imposed a moratorium in response to the BP oil spill. The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 workers and ultimately dumped about 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the moratorium, lifted in October, affected 36 exploratory rigs, and oil production was mostly unchanged during the moratorium, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

The oil and gas industry can make a case that increased regulatory scrutiny can slow new discoveries, but it’s unreasonable to insist the BP disaster did not justify a temporary moratorium to assess the situation.

Economic impacts do matter. Over the past five years, several uranium mining companies sunk tens of millions of dollars into lease holds, mining plans and permitting in Wyoming, but most have not yet been able to produce a pound of uranium to make good on their investment. Now some investors are in a panic, and Wyoming jobs could be at stake.

“I have nothing to sell, and the short-term market is dropping precipitously. If this goes long-term it’s going to impact our plans,” said Wayne Heili, vice president of Ur-Energy’s mining division.

As of mid-week, some nuclear power professionals still held out hope that the Japanese nuclear crisis could end up a “shining moment” for their industry, if a large radiation leak is ultimately averted. Heili aptly noted, “Japan will forever be in the dialogue of nuclear power safety. But how that plays out is still up in the air.”

If a large radiation leak is averted despite multiple catastrophic events, the nuclear power industry can rightfully claim that it is highly proficient at responding to a major emergency. But neither the industry nor the Japanese government can ever exonerate themselves from the string of human decisions that located nuclear reactors in a fault zone and approved of a facility and backup systems that ultimately failed.

Even as the crisis continues to unfold, Nuclear Energy Institute lobbyists are reportedly in conversations with U.S. lawmakers to defend against political blow-back. Industry officials are urging the public to keep a cool head — to not lose sight of nuclear energy’s carbon advantage in addressing climate change.

“I believe that, in spite of what you hear, that the public is generally pretty sophisticated and reasonable. They think through these things,” Cameco Corp. CEO Gerald W. Grandey said during a conference call on Monday.

It’s important to be realistic about our reliance on energy, and the difficult choices made in the cost-benefit analysis that goes into every energy source. In this debate there’s always somebody tempted to declare ‘isn’t all of society to blame for the Gulf oil spill and Japanese nuclear crisis?’

No, somebody should be accountable.

“There’s a reason we have these strong laws for environmental protection. They are not a plot to have government intervene in our lives. … The fundamental, underlying question is how to protect public health, and the public welfare,” said Bruce Pendery, staff attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Environmental violations are serious, and they should have serious consequences. Whether the public response to Japan’s nuclear crisis will be a measured level of scrutiny, an emotional punishment or an overconfident rejection of industry reforms remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the industrial disaster should remind folks in Wyoming that stringent precautions, monitoring and enforcement are not frivolous matters. This winter, multiple high-ozone events forced residents and visitors near Pinedale to avoid going outside. Two Wyoming oil refineries with questionable environmental track records continue to use hydrofluoric acid — potentially lethal for miles — next door to homes and schools. It’s vital to continue evaluating whether we are doing all we can to prevent industrial disasters.

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on March 15, 2011

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