Nuclear Power – Hit or Myth?

Have we time-warped back to the 1950s, or is the future here? Just a few years ago, it seemed like the anti-nuclear movement had sent nuclear energy towards its grave. Yet now major players from President Bush to the UN are hyping nuclear power as a clean, cheap energy source.

We thought we knew nuclear power was a bad deal. But the pro-nuclear arguments peppering the mainstream press are seductive: Since nuclear energy doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses, perhaps it is a good alternative to fossil fuels? And isn’t it cheaper right now than both coal and natural gas? Industry-funded polling indicates that a slim majority actually does support nuclear industry.

But although Vice President Cheney dismisses those against nuclear power as influenced by “irrational fears,” there continue to be sound arguments against nuclear energy. From an economic, environmental, and safety standpoint, nuclear energy is not a good choice. We cannot consider the work done; we must continue to voice these arguments in contrast to the pro-nuclear rhetoric appearing daily. Continued vigilance is essential to prevent a nuclear renaissance.

Myth #1: Clean

It is true that nuclear power generation emits few greenhouse gasses, even in comparison to ‘clean coal technology’. However, the immense amounts of pollution associated with the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle render this statement woefully ridiculous.

Nuclear advocates like to point out that the waste, although highly radioactive, is also very concentrated, unlike air pollution from fossil fuel plants, which is almost impossible to handle once it’s out in the atmosphere. But what to do with this concentrated waste has not been resolved by any of the countries using nuclear power. Vice President Cheney likes to cite France as an example of a well-managed waste disposal program, in contrast to the problems plaguing the US program, which he says are purely political. Perhaps Cheney should do more research: In actuality both the French and US efforts are facing humongous technical and political difficulties.

In the US, the Department of Energy (DOE) wants to permanently store spent nuclear fuel underground at Yucca Mountain, NV, about 120 miles NW of Las Vegas. Although several locations were origionally considered, Congress decided Yucca Mountain would be the only site to receive serious study. After almost 20 years of work, finding the site unsuitable would be political suicide for the Department of Energy, and is thus essentially not an option no matter what scientific results show.

Major scientific issues continue to pop up, but the DOE, in a rush to have the site certified as safe by Winter 2001, has taken an engineering approach to the project. Scientific questions are ignored in favor of ‘engineering’ the problems away. The project is poorly managed, morale is low, and the best scientists are driven away out of frustration. Politically, Nevada resents storing the nation’s waste when the state does not have any nuclear power plants.

At the earliest estimate, the dump would be open by 2010; until then, spent fuel will continue to be stored at the plants were it is used. This is a generally safe way to store the spent fuel; however, plants are already running out of storage room and the problem will only get worse if plant licenses are renewed for another 20 years of operation.

In comparison to US disposal problems, Cheney points to France and their “well-run” program of both recycling nuclear fuel (called reprocessing) and attempting to dispose of it underground. But the French situation is a joke. Cheney is apparently unaware that France does not even have a site picked out for the underground dump, due to intense public opposition to the locations selected (at least one of which was, unsurprisingly, in a poor region of the country). And fuel reprocessing is an international scandal. One of the main objections to reprocessing is that it makes available plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons. Theoretically this plutonium is carefully tracked and disposed of. However, the French plant is managed in such high disregard of French law that their ability to properly handle the plutonium is in doubt: Under French law the plant (the largest reprocessing facility in the world, with a majority of shares owned by the French government) can take fuel from other countries, but the recycled fuel and highly radioactive waste must be returned to the country of origin after the 5-8 year process. Surprise! Contracts from the early 1990’s indicate that foreign countries had no intention of retrieving their reprocessed waste- in order to continue generating contracts, the French facility essentially became a dump for European high level nuclear waste. Lawsuits from the mid 1990’s are forcing the plant to return the waste, but extreme public all along the transport route makes this difficult. The reprocessing facility has also repeatedly treated wastes for which it did not have a permit. Several EU countries are moving to shut down the plant.

And while the waste is the biggest dilemma, the rest of the fuel cycle is far from benign. Uranium mining leaves behind piles of uranium mine tailings. The process of turning uranium ore into fuel is the single largest user of electricity in the US– and this electricity is ironically generated by some of the dirtiest coal plants in the country, according to the executive director of the US Enrichment Corporation (located in the heart of Appalachia in Padacuh, KY). Power plants emit radioactive gasses and particles; it is difficult to quantify damage to surrounding communities by this radiation, but the Massachusetts Department of Health did link high leukemia rates in the counties surrounding the Pilgrim power plant outside Boston to radiation emitted from the plant.

Myth #2: Cheap

The production price of nuclear power (including the costs of fuel, plant maintenance, and operation) is now less than that of coal or natural gas, at 1.83 cents/kilowatthour compared to 2.07 and 3.52 cents/kwh, respectively, during Winter 2000. But look at muddy dealings behind these numbers, first at the fuel market and secondly at the large subsidies given to the nuclear industry.

Nuclear power is suddenly so attractive mainly because of the spikes in natural gas prices over winter 2000. Incidently, one of the major natural gas suppliers in the country, Enron Corp in Texas, is also one of the two corporations scrambling to buy nuclear power plants across the northeast. The uranium fuel market has been glutted since the late nineties when the Department of Energy privatized the world’s largest fuel enrichment facility. At the same time that uranium fuel became dirt cheap compared to platinum-priced natural gas, construction costs on many plants were finally paid off, leaving utilities ready to reap the benefits of their nuclear behemoths.

The industry requires a huge infrastructure, which relies heavily on government support even when the plants themselves belong to investor-owned utilities. Much of this support net is already in place, but has not yet been completely paid off. One example is fuel enrichment. The Department of Energy (DOE) is required by law to get a full return on the approximately $11 billion it has put out toward uranium enrichment. Including the costs of cleaning up and decommissioning enrichment facilities, this figure rises an additional $4-20 billion (depending on different estimates). Utilities are only liable for a third of the clean-up costs. Privatizing the enrichment company was one step towards recovering the costs, but also flooded the uranium market, thus lowering fuel prices. (In order to look appealing to investors, the newly private company, US Enrichment Corp, stated it had huge reserves of enriched uranium.) Simultaneously, legislation wrote off all but $3 billion of the debt the DOE had accumulated around uranium enrichment. The public absorbed most of the enr
ichment expenditures, while the nuclear power industry had a large supply of cheap fuel.

The government also siphons money to the nuclear industry through the Price-Anderson Act. First passed in the 1950s and extended through the 1990s, this legislation is government-provided insurance for the nuclear industry. Utilities are liable for damages up to $8 billion; past this figure the government assumes responsibility. There are many possible accidents that could result in damages in excess of $8 billion: The cost of the Chernobyl, for instance, was $350 billion. (A better comparison would be a damage figure from Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island accident; however, for some strange reason, updated estimates are not readily available.) Although Germany and Switzerland adopted unlimited liability for utilities in the 1980s, a bill in Congress (H.R. 1679) now proposes renewing the Price Anderson Act past its 2002 expiration date.

In recent years the government has been less willing to support the nuclear industry. The amount the industry receives from the federal government has not been increasing; in fact, although Bush administration rhetoric supports nuclear power, the Bush 2002 budget proposal cuts funding for parts of the industry up to 50%. However, bills have been introduced in both the Senate and House drastically increasing government support, including the Price-Anderson act extension. Watch out for Senator Pete Dominici (R-NM), a major supporter of the nuclear industry and sponsor of the Senate bill (S-472).

Over the long term the government (ie, the public) will be forced to pour money into the decommissioning and cleanup of different nuclear facilities, because surcharges mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to support these long range activities are estimated to be too small. Even with the nuclear industry dormant the public foots their bill; reviving nuclear energy will require a renewal of government-funded infrastructure support.

Myth #3: Safe

It is theoretically possible to run a nuclear program very safely. Safety at US plants is generally good and is actually improving as the plants are privatized. (Since one company owns several plants, knowledge is shared among the plants, and investor-owned utilities have monetary incentives to keep the plants running well.) The industry likes to point to nifty new reactor designs which prohibit the possibility of a meltdown.

However, even at well-run facilities, strange mistakes happen, like the incident at the Japanese enrichment plant where hurried workers added too much uranium. And, although little work has been done to investigate connections between nuclear facilities and local leukemia rates, some strong links have been established (for example, between high leukemia rates and both the Pilgrim power plant outside of Boston and the French fuel reprocessing facility).

Nuclear power is a bad deal. Despite Cheney’s claim that people against nuclear power are slaves to “irrational fears,” nuclear power’s unsuitability is obvious to anyone who can step outside the industry’s rhetoric. You don’t have to be a paranoid freak to oppose spending billions supporting the creation of a highly radioactive riddle (nuclear waste), the solution to which has not yet been developed and requires even more billions of dollars. All because nuclear power doesn’t directly emit greenhouse gasses? Last time I checked, there was a comparatively benign solution to both energy and global warming woes: energy efficiency and solar/wind power.

In fact, research into energy efficiency wins the prize for the greatest returns on the least amount of money, a piddly $8 billion compared to $66 billion spent on nuclear energy research over the past 50 years. The US today uses 42% less energy per unit of gross domestic product than in 1970, a much greater gain than the 11% of the country’s energy supply generated by nuclear power.

According to a MSNBC poll, a majority of young, college-educated people in the US think both nuclear energy and energy efficiency are “energy sources of the future”. Many people support renewable energy but question how it can meet the baseload energy demands currently covered by a combination of coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy (20%). Well, yes, that is the billion dollar question: the answer is dependent upon whether the government chooses to support renewables and energy efficiency research or nuclear power.

Unfortunately, energy efficiency and solar/wind power are not as sexy as the image of ‘harnessing the atom’. And more importantly, they are smaller scale projects that don’t require the huge infrastructure and long time attention associated with nuclear power. The nuclear industry is large and almost inseparable from governments around the world. Now that the Bush administration is vocally supporting nuclear energy, and investor owned utilities have taken an interest, the industry may experience a small renaissance in the form of extended plant operating licenses. Plants are initially licensed for 40 years; licenses will be up for renewal as soon as 2006, with all but two due by 2030. Two plants in Maryland and South Carolina recently had their licenses extended by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a move unforeseen a few years ago. Investor-owned energy companies will not back down easily from their quest to re-license their newly-acquired plants.

But as Congressman Ed Markey said, you can prop up a corpse but you can’t reanimate it. Even with the recently completed designs for small scale, passively safe reactors, it will be very difficult to build a new nuclear plant in this country. Anti-nuclear activists must follow the nuclear industry’s rapacious gaze to lesser- industrialized countries; China, India, South Korea and other countries have developed nuclear energy programs without the hindrance of the strong US and European antinuclear movement.

Germany, with 25% of its electricity generated by nuclear power, is the first industrial country to dismantle its nuclear power system. In an exciting, unprecedented move, Germany will be shutting down their 19 plants over the next 25 years in favor of energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.

Within the US, activists must push whole-heartedly for government and cultural support of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Although there has been little public scrutiny of the nuclear industry in recent years, the legacy of the strong anti-nuclear movement means that nuclear policy in this country is still somewhat dependent upon public opinion. It is thus up to the public to shove the government towards energy efficiency and renewable energy research, and to support the cultural shift required by a serious commitment to these technologies. We must break out of the inertia holding us to a grossly consumptive lifestyle.

Perhaps the ‘irrational fear’ of a nuclear meltdown will help fuel this cultural shift, although the primary arguments against nuclear power aren’t safety-orientated. Rational considerations of economic and environmental realities dictate a move away from nuclear power. From any angle, the heart of the nuclear industry is rotten.