Monday, August 06, 2007

Look more closely -- nuclear power is not an oasis, but a mirage

Maine Today
August 5, 2007

In the last several 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 the Democratic and
Republican 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 cleanup
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

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

Thankfully, after public protests, Washington, D.C., rejec-ted
Consolidated Edison's 1962 request to build a reactor in the New
York borough of Queens, three miles from the United Nations.
But it subsequently approved licensing of units within 50 miles
of New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington. New Orleans had
three days of warning before Hurricane Katrina hit and was not
successfully evacuated. A nuclear accident might 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 is
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

Let's see them solve the problems of exorbitant capital costs,
safe disposition of nuclear waste, realistic measures to deal with
the threats of terrorism, 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 mothballs
-- 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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