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Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France. Photo: Stefan Kühn/Wikimedia Commons

Though the coverage of Japan’s crisis rages on, the question of whether the United States should rethink nuclear energy has resurfaced. Just as the nuclear industry was “settling back into the public conscience” as a safe form of energy, one of my professors noted.

This made me wonder: Am I aware of nuclear plants surrounding me?

Mother Jones has a nifty article listing cities closest to nuclear power plants. I’m unsure of people’s familiarity with nearby power plants, but I’d dare to say many already know, especially if the construction of the plant was contested or highly publicized.

The closest plants to Madison are outside of Manitowac, Wis. — a city 130 miles northeast of here on Lake Michigan.

Kewaunee plant, one of two nuclear plants located outside of Manitowac. Photo: U.S. NRC/Wikimedia Commons

Manitowoc lies within 13 miles of two nuclear power facilities and is approximately 80 miles north of Milwaukee. These plants generate 20 percent of the state’s total power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Other sources of energy include coal, natural gas, petroleum and hydroelectricity.

My home state of Georgia currently has four nuclear plants within 30 miles of two cities, according to Mother Jones’ nice graphic (which draws from NRC data).

But we’re not in the same position as other cities, where nuclear plants are viewed by some as being too close for comfort. For instance, New York’s governor has advocated shutting down the Indian Point nuclear plant roughly 40 miles from New York City, according to the Wall Street Journal. Currently, the plant provides the city with a quarter of its power.

But shutting down this plant would violate federal standards stating that power sources should not be minimized in such a way to make a grid vulnerable to a significant blackout once every 10 years. Experts say getting rid of the plant would increase the vulnerability of blackouts to once every three years.

In addition, people are concerned about the Governmental Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to keep evacuation standards at 10 miles from nuclear incidents, even though Japan has evacuated everyone within 19 miles and the U.S. government has encouraged Americans within 50 miles of Fukushima to evacuate, according to the article.

If the United States were to adopt a 50-mile evacuation radius — as Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones smartly points out — NYC would have to come up with a plan to evacuate some 21 million people living in the city.

Below is a map of America’s nuclear presence (through 2008).

Photo: Energy Information Administration

But the question of whether America should reduce reliance on nuclear energy isn’t an easy one. After all, we’re the highest consumers of energy, using 11,040 kilowatt-hours per household per year, when compared to 3,500 kilowatt-hours in Europe, as suggested by Europe’s Energy Portal. We’re also one of the few countries that has smacked a partisan label on climate change, where collectively reducing emissions is viewed as a gimmick for some — sadly.

So what makes us think we — industry and domestic consumers — can settle for less energy? I don’t know enough about the intricacies of nuclear plants to weigh the pros and cons. But I suspect we’re still far away from getting everyone on the same page.

Do you think Americans would be ready to nip nuclear power? Do they know the effects it would have on their energy use, or would they even be willing to comply with energy restrictions if need be?

Opinions welcome.

More background: My colleagues Eric and Erin have blogged about the basics of power planthood and what went down in Fukushima. Also my geologist-turned-science-writer colleague, Tim, compares the quake in Japan with his experiences covering tectonic activity in Seattle. And for reference, Bloomberg has a quick rundown of how radiation works and travels for anyone interested.

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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