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Utah nuclear power experts monitoring Japan crisis

By Sarah Dallof | Posted - Mar. 12, 2011 at 9:33 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah environmentalists and nuclear power experts are closely watching the situation in Japan, where an 8.9-magnitude earthquake caused severe damage to a nuclear power plant in the country.

Crews there are working diligently to get a still-developing nuclear disaster under control. The crisis is of particular interest to Utah because the state has ties to the industry, including the storage of low-level nuclear waste and a proposed nuclear plant in Emery County.

Dr. Tatjana Jevremovic, chair of the University of Utah's Utah Nuclear Engineering Program, has been communicating directly with scientists working in Japan.

Utah should watch this very carefully. We are in an earthquake-prone zone. We have not had an earthquake of significant proportion in many years. Anytime a nuclear reactor is going to be built you need to have an exit strategy.

–Tom Panuzio

"It's already been 30-plus hours from the time this reactor was shut down. Every hour gives more assurance that everything will be resolved properly," she said.

Jevremovic says a team at the University can be assembled and ready to help in Japan within 24 hours if needed.

The disaster ranks as the third largest in history, after the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986 and 3 Mile Island in the US in 1979. HEAL Utah, an environmental group that targets nuclear and toxic waste, hesitates to use what's happening in Japan as an example of why Utah doesn't need a nuclear plant.

"It's an unfolding situation, there's so much we don't know," said Matt Pacenza, HEAL Utah's policy director.

Still, Pacenza says, there are natural emotions that come with watching news coverage.


"Any of us, no matter what your position is on a particular source of energy, certainly would have to look at today's events and have concerns and fear," he said.

Blue Castle Holdings, a Utah-based company, is proposing to build a power plant in Green River. They're currently studying the environmental characteristics of site. They say there are key difference between their proposed facility and the one in Japan, chiefly the system to ensure water cools the nuclear reactors.

The company also says the site on which they hope to build is not seismically prone.

Former FEMA official and current Homeland Security expert Tom Panuzio says the first 100 hours -- and 100 days -- in Japan will be critical to not just the recovery of the country, but to the world's view of nuclear power.

"Japan relies heavily on nuclear energy, so it's more prepared than any other country," he said. "It would be absolutely something every Utahn should watch."

He estimates it will take billions of dollars and the assistance of 100 countries to deal with the threat -- factors Utah should consider.

Panuzio said, "We are in an earthquake-prone zone. We have not had an earthquake of significant proportion in many years. Anytime a nuclear reactor is going to be built you need to have an exit strategy in terms of being able to deal with an 8.5, 8.1 earthquake."


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Sarah Dallof


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