Another Risk of Nuclear Power

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, of which we are rapidly producing the one year anniversary, produced a blizzard of headlines. The news was full of new attempts to bring reactors back under control, evacuations from areas surrounding the power plant, and repeated reassessments of how serious the situation at the stricken facility was. And, over and over again throughout the new stories, mentions of water. We read about massive amounts of water being used to cool the reactors, radioactive water being dumped into the ocean, and warnings about the safety of drinking water dozens of miles or more from the actual site of the accident.

Our new report, Too Close to Home:  Nuclear Power and the Threat to Drinking Water, uses new data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to examine what a nuclear accident like Fukushima could mean for water supplies in the United States.

We learned that 49 million Americans draw their drinking water from a public water system with an intake within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant.  In the event of an accident, those intakes could be contaminated by airborne radionuclides—as a drinking water system in Tokyo, 130 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, was in the weeks after the disaster there.  Such an event could complicate the task of emergency response, by forcing emergency planners to find a new source of safe drinking water for a large population that otherwise would have been out of the danger zone.  (To find out where these nuclear plants are, and how many people could be affected by an accident at each, take a look at our interactive map of American nuclear reactors.)

Nor is the risk of airborne contamination the only threat to water in the event of a nuclear accident.  At Fukushima, in fact, it seems likely that much more radioactive material was released directly into the water used for emergency cooling in the reactors than was emitted into the air.  Because that water was discharged into the Pacific Ocean, it never threatened drinking water supplies, but the same would not be true if an accident took place along a major river; the Mississippi, for instance, is adjacent to several nuclear plants.

As long as the United States continues to rely on nuclear power plants for a large portion of its electricity, the basic danger this report highlights will remain.  People need water, and so do nuclear plants.  Continued reliance on a power source with dangerous fuel at its heart means continued risk.  Beyond the obvious risk of direct exposure to nuclear fuel, exposure by contaminated water is a crucial additional threat.