U.S. nuclear safety concerns 30 years after Chernobyl

- It was early morning on April 26, 1986, when a nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl reactor number 4 in Ukraine killed at least 30 people and blanketed parts of surrounding countries and Europe. In all, over 3 million people were exposed to heightened levels of radiation.

A nearby town of 50,000 was completely evacuated and abandoned. And still the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster remains. 2,500 workers are building a massive steel enclosure to cover the reactor and create a leak-proof structure to contain nuclear fallout for the next 100 years.

Today in the U.S., it is a different story.

Neil Sheehan works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government agency tasked with ensuring the safety of over 100 nuclear reactors in the United States, with five more in the southeast expected to open in the next few years. Are people justified in being concerned when they hear about new nuclear power plants?

"Well we don't believe so," Sheehan said. "The new nuclear power plants have safety features the current fleet does not have."

Still the debate over nuclear energy is not so cut and dry. Nuclear power doesn't release any carbon dioxide like fossil fuels, leading some to consider it clean energy.

"We do not consider nuclear energy a clean energy resource," said Matt McKinsey, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Nuclear energy generates radioactive, toxic waste that has to be isolated from people and from the environment over many millennia."

In New York, more than 25 percent of the state's energy comes from four nuclear power plants.

One of those is Indian Point, just north of New York City. It's been a target of environmentalists and politicians for years. It has been plagued with problems such as radioactive water leaks, power failures in the reactor core and more. Many have called for the plant's closure, citing its proximity to the most densely populated city in the country.

When reached for comment about the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl, a spokesman for Entergy, the company that runs Indian Point, said the emergency plans in place will keep the public safe.

"Nuclear accidents, aside from being exceedingly rare events and almost always with virtually no public health impact - as we have seen with both Fukushima and Three Mile Island - are also very slowly developing," Entergy said.

Still the shadow of disasters like Chernobyl looms large over the nuclear power debate.
 

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