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Nuclear Power Plants

Risks & Empowering the Community

Nuclear Plant near homes

Today, 104 nuclear reactors supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity. And some experts believe this number will rise due to issues surrounding global warming and coal power plants. But if you're one of the many residents living in a community with a nuclear plant, you probably have little access to information about the reactor in your own backyard.

A team of 30 Carnegie Mellon University students recently unveiled a new study to help change that.

"Community concerns about safety risks from a nearby nuclear power plant can be eased by providing people with the information that they need to control their own risk," said Keith Florig, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon.

Along with mechanical engineering Professor Allen Robinson, Florig teaches a project course titled "Nuclear Power and Communities." The undergraduate capstone course enrolls students from both engineering and social sciences, providing them with an opportunity to tackle a real-world problem involving technology and society.

Katie Bastine, a junior majoring in materials science and engineering, investigated current community outreach practices of nuclear power utilities.

"Based on telephone interviews we conducted at 10 nuclear power locations across the country, many nuclear utilities are not very active in inviting community dialogue on safety issues," she said.

Some members of the project team rated the websites of nuclear power plants to assess the availability of plant contact information, emergency plans and other data that might address the safety concerns of nearby communities.

Although some power plants had very informative websites, reported teammate Nadir Sidi, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, "more than 30 percent of plant websites have no information about local emergency plans, and more than half have no information about how nuclear waste, including spent fuel, is stored at the site."

To address the great differences in information availability from plant to plant, the team recommends that the nuclear industry develop voluntary standards for the online presentation of safety information relevant to communities around nuclear power plants.

Others in the project reviewed petitions and public comments that citizens had filed since 2000 with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the governing body of the nuclear power industry. They found that many of the concerns that citizens express about local nuclear facilities go unaddressed because they are judged to lie outside the agency's purview or to contain insufficient evidence for action.

"I think we were all surprised by the limited response from government officials to certain kinds of concerns from people living near nuclear sites," said Rusty Sewell, a senior majoring in social and decision sciences. The report recommends that the agency consider assigning staff to help citizens frame their formal comments in ways that are more likely to result in their voices being heard.

The students spent an entire semester conducting this research. They will present their study findings to experts from industry, government and non-profit groups including: Westinghouse Electric Company; the Nuclear Energy Institute; the Environmental Protection Agency; the National Research Council; and Resources for the Future.

Related Links: Engineering & Public Policy  |  Mechanical Engineering  |  Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences

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