Nuclear Power Safety: After Japan's Fukushima Plant Crisis, Some Worry In The Heartland

Workers continue dealing with the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant Tuesday, struggling to contain poisonous radiation from the plant's nuclear fuel rods. While that situation is still unfolding, it has ignited a debate halfway around the world about the safety of nuclear power plants in America's heartland.

Illinois is home to eleven of the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States, the most of any state in the nation. And as many have pointed out in the wake of the incident in Japan, several of the plants are located near the New Madrid Seismic Zone downstate. While it's no San Andreas, the zone -- which ranges from southern Illinois to northeastern Arkansas -- causes many tiny earthquakes every year, and as recently as 2008 led to a magnitude 5.8 event. In 1811, a massive earthquake centered in the area, probably around magnitude 7.5 to 8.0, rang church bells in Boston and cracked sidewalks in Washington, D.C.

Adding to a sudden anxiety around the state's nuclear facilities is the fact that four of them, as the Chicago Sun-Times reports, are of the same Mark I design as the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor that is currently on the brink of meltdown.

So, exactly how safe are Illinois's nuclear power plants? The answer depends, unsurprisingly, on who you ask.

John Rowe is the CEO of Exelon Corp., the company that owns all 11 of Illinois's nuclear power plants. He told Business Week on Monday that earthquakes weren't really the issue -- the damage to the reactor came primarily from the tsunami, Rowe argued. Even if there were to be a massive earthquake in Illinois, it would be hard to imagine a tidal wave hitting the Great Plains.

And Dr. Jay Lehr of the conservative Heartland Institute spoke on WLS's "Cisco Cotto Show" defending nuclear power in the state and the country:

You're one of the leading states in nuclear power. You have great power plants...the safety mechanisms, the backups in every plant in Illinois are such that there virtually is no chance of a leak of radiation that would harm the citizens of your state.

There has never been a fatality in a commercial nuclear power plant in its history. There've been 200 nuclear ships that've never been a loss of life on those ships. We lose 200 people a year around the world in coal and gas-fired power plants from explosions. Nuclear power is actually the safest form of power.

But critics of nuclear energy see the situation in Japan as reason for pause in the expansion of nuclear energy that President Obama has long touted as central to a new energy policy. Dave Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Information Service in Chicago was one voice of caution; he told the St. Louis Beacon that the government should seriously reassess its nuclear ambitions, and should take a close look especially at Mark I reactors like the four in Illinois.

The Chicago Tribune spoke with residents of two small Illinois towns located near reactors, whose opinions were also split:

"As soon as you see something like that, you worry about it," [Richard] Mitchell said of the nuclear crisis, which has forced more than 100,000 Japanese people to evacuate their homes. "The thought comes to mind: If anything goes wrong, you won't be back (to Byron) for many years." ...

"We've already seen all that stuff (about Japan)," said bartender Jennifer Votta, 37, brushing aside any suggestion that what is happening at the Fukushima nuclear complex could play out in the twin towers of Exelon's Braidwood power plant that loom above her city.

"When people tell you, reassure you that things are safe your whole life — and you've lived her 37 years, nothing happens — you don't think about it," Votta explained, pausing to deliver an order of double cheeseburgers.

Two opinions that aren't divided: Illinois's two senators, Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Dick Durbin, both of whom continue to support nuclear power. "I don't think we should have a knee-jerk reaction," Kirk said on Monday, according to FOX Chicago. "It was the tsunami that wiped out the cooling system, so we have to look at the locations of these reactors." And FOX quotes Durbin saying, “We need to expand all safe forms of electricity, including nuclear."

Still, the ultimate fate of a generator six thousand miles away could say more about the future of Illinois's nuclear policy -- and that of the entire country -- than any politician.