Two Power Plants Face Emergency Shut-Down: Is Nuclear Power Really Safe?

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Homer Simpson, or one of the boobs in sector 7-G, must have fallen asleep again. Yesterday two power plants in New England underwent emergency shut down.

At Indian Point nuclear power plant—about 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan—a transformer exploded on reactor 2 just after 6:20 pm. Entergy Corp., which owns the plant, told AP that no radioactive materials leaked.

(Read TIME’s report on the nuclear renaissance)

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon shut down  about 30 minutes later, after workers detected radioactive water seeping from a leaky pipe in the complex. Plant officials say the radioactive water did not seep outside the complex into the environment, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the two shutdowns were “complete coincidence.”

Energy analysts will tell you that nuclear power, because it is carbon free and economically competitive when oil prices are high, is on the verge of a renaissance. But along with problems over nuclear waste—and concerns that the spread of atom-splitting expertise will lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons—the nuclear industry faces a major challenge. Every time a safety incidence occurs, the industry faces a major setback. A fuse blows at a coal or gas plant and few would take notice. But an explosion near a core packed full of fissile material makes major news, and conforms to the image of the nuclear cowboy. Homer Simpson, the evil Monty Burns, or even these two stooges who were suspended for being coked up at work at Indian Point, remain central to the popular conception of nuclear power.

(Click here for TIME’s list of top ten environmental disasters)

Consider this statistic. In 1974, President Richard Nixon predicted that the U.S. would have 1,000 commercial reactors in operation by the end of the century. Then came the safety incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the partial meltdown in Chernobyl in 1986. By the turn of the millennium, only 104 plants were operating in the U.S.

Nuclear energy advocates will tell you nuclear power has a better safety record than any other source of energy. But an explosion at a power plant barely over a marathon’s distance away from NYC? That’s still scary.

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