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The mirage of nuclear power

The industry has never proved that it can deliver on its far-fetched dreams.

July 30, 2007|Paul Josephson

In the last two weeks, the Chinese signed a deal with Westinghouse to build four nuclear power plants; a U.S. utility joined the French national nuclear juggernaut -- with 60 reactors under its belt -- to build stations throughout the United States; and the Russians neared the launch of the first of a dozen nuclear power stations that float on water, with sales promised to Morocco and Namibia. Two sworn opponents -- environmentalists and President Bush -- tout nuclear energy as a panacea for the nation's dependence on oil and a solution to global warming. They've been joined by all the presidential candidates from both parties, with the exception of John Edwards. And none of them is talking about the recent nuclear accident in Japan caused by an earthquake.

These surprising bedfellows base their sanguine assessment of nuclear power on an underestimation of its huge financial costs, on a failure to consider unresolved problems involving all nuclear power stations and on a willingness to overlook this industry's history of offering far-fetched dreams, failing to deliver and the occasional accident.

Since the 1950s, the nuclear industry has promised energy "too cheap to meter," inherently safe reactors and immediate clean-up and storage of hazardous waste. But nuclear power is hardly cheap -- and far more dangerous than wind, solar and other forms of power generation. Recent French experience shows a reactor will top $3 billion to build. Standard construction techniques have not stemmed rising costs or shortened lead time. Industry spokespeople insist they can erect components in assembly-line fashion a la Henry Ford to hold prices down. But the one effort to achieve this end, the Russian "Atommash" reactor factory, literally collapsed into the muck.

The industry has also underestimated how expensive it will be to operate stations safely against terrorist threat and accident. New reactors will require vast exclusion zones, doubly reinforced containment structures, the employment of large armed private security forces and fail-safe electronic safeguards. How will all of these and other costs be paid and by whom?

To ensure public safety, stations must be built far from population centers and electricity demand, which means higher transmission costs than the industry admits. In the past, regulators approved the siting of reactors near major cities based on the assumption that untested evacuation plans would work. Thankfully, after public protests, Washington did not approve Consolidated Edison's 1962 request to build a reactor in Queens, N.Y., three miles from the United Nations. But it subsequently approved licensing of units within 50 miles of New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. New Orleans had three days of warning before Hurricane Katrina hit and was not successfully evacuated. A nuclear accident may give us only 20 minutes to respond; this indicates that reactors should be built only in sparsely populated regions.

Finally, what of the spent fuel and other nuclear waste? More than 70,000 tons of spent fuel at nuclear power stations are stored temporarily in basins of water or above ground in concrete casks. The Bush administration held back release of a 2005 National Research Council study, only excerpts of which have been published, because its findings, unsympathetic to nuclear power, indicated that this fuel remains an inviting target for terrorists.

And more than 150 million Americans live within 75 miles of nuclear waste, according to the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. A storage facility that was supposed to open at Yucca Mountain, Nev., in 1989 still faces legal and scientific hurdles. And if Yucca Mountain opens, how will we transport all of the waste safely to Nevada, and through whose towns and neighborhoods?

Industry representatives, government regulators and nuclear engineers now promise to secure the nation's energy independence through inherently safe reactors. This is the same industry that gave the world nuclear aircraft and satellites -- three of the 30 satellites launched have plummeted to Earth -- and Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and a series of lesser known accidents.

Let's see them solve the problems of exorbitant capital costs, safe disposition of nuclear waste, realistic measures to deal with the threats of terror, workable evacuation plans and siting far from population centers before they build one more station. In early July, President Bush spoke glowingly about nuclear power at an Alabama reactor recently brought out of moth balls; but it has shut down several times since it reopened because of operational glitches. What clearer indication do we need that nuclear power's time has not yet come?

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Paul Josephson writes about nuclear power and teaches history at Colby College.

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