Why not nukes?
I can remember walking out of a theatre in north Austin on a warm Spring evening in 1979 thinking ‘well, that should put the nail in the coffin of the damn South Texas Nuclear Project.’ The movie was The China Syndrome, a nuclear thriller about human corruption and cover-up and the near-disaster of a nuclear meltdown that, as jokingly asserted in the movie, would have burned its way through the planet all the way to China. Back in late March, the disastrous accident at Three-Mile Island had turned ‘nuclear power’ into a synonym for catastrophically dangerous and there was now no way in hell the Austin voters were going to approve our continued participation in the South Texas nuke proposed for construction in Bay City. Or so I thought. But the Austin business community rallied behind the nuke and mounted a very effective campaign that was based, ironically, on the argument that nuclear was the cheapest power we could buy and that a decision to bail out of the nuclear partnership would be extremely costly and very ill-advised. Leading the argument was our sterling mayor at the time, Carol Keaton, later to become Carol Keaton McClellan Rylander Tom-Thumb-Page Strayhorn-Bullhorn, about whom the less said the better. So we stayed in the nuke (even though in 1981 voters authorized the city council to dump our 16% of the STP, by that time there were no unwary buyers who were willing to take it off our hands.) We stayed through mind-boggling cost overruns (the project, estimated in the initial feasibility study at $974 million has now cost $5.5 billion – for those of you not so hot at math, that’s a 560% cost overrun, an overrun that compares proudly with some of the ones the pentagon has rung up on the taxpayer’s nickel. This particular boondoggle stayed in Texas – you see it every month in your utility bill.)
And now, after years of no major nuclear meltdowns (well, Chernobyl, but that was the Russians and what do they know about nuclear power) but no new applications for licenses to build new nukes, the nation as a whole seems prepared to be stampeded into an acceptance of nuclear power as a ‘clean’ alternative to burning fossil fuels. Holy Radioactive Holocaust, Batman – since when did we re-define ‘clean’ in such a logic-shattering manner? Before we go about shooting ourselves in both feet because we are frustrated that we may have to get out of our cars and walk somewhere, let’s review the history and the facts.
The story of the nuke and its place in our energy past (and future) is a complicated one, but we can parse it into the following major pro-nuke arguments:
1. the nuke makes sense economically; it is cheap energy.
2. the nuke is safe; the problems of the past have been fixed.
3. the nuke causes less environmental damage than other alternative energy sources.
4. the nuke is proven technology; other alternative energy solutions are unproven and may prove to be dead ends.
Pro-nukers (like scientist and Gaia theorist James Lovelock, a supporter of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy™), can produce lots of other arguments in favor of the nuke, and do, but these are the four that I would like to examine since they are likely to be of most concern to Sierra Club cardholders and other responsible members of the environmentally-conscious community.
1. the nuke makes sense economically; it is cheap energy. Well, actually no. Nuclear energy is certainly not inexpensive to build. Despite initial claims to the contrary, the construction of nuclear power plants is outrageously expensive and corruption and cost-overruns are endemic in the industry. Austin is certainly not alone in experiencing the devastating effect of construction cost overruns for a nuke. Mark Holt and Carl E. Behrens, of the Congressional Research Service report that “Construction costs for reactors completed since the mid-1980s have ranged from $2-$6 billion, averaging more than $3,000 per kilowatt of electric generating capacity (in 1997 dollars). The nuclear industry predicts that new plant designs could be built for less than half that amount if many identical plants were built in a series, but such economies of scale have yet to be demonstrated.” In addition, the spiraling costs of waste elimination and compliance with regulatory mandates imposed by a nervous Congress on behalf of an even more nervous American public make building a nuke one of the riskiest economic ventures around. So risky, in fact, that as early as 1957, it was necessary to pass special legislation (the Price Anderson Act) in order to tempt investors into the nuke by severely limiting their liability for even gross incompetence and malfeasance. Despite court challenges that assert that the act underestimated the effect and cost of a catastrophic nuclear failure and that the burden of cost for the fed-backed indemnity to the US taxpayer (estimated at between $2.5 million and $33 million per reactor per year by USPIRG and other groups), the act was defended by the courts (in 1978) and is still in effect. $70 million of the fund was used to cover liability costs of Three-Mile Island. Cost could be reduced, of course, by reducing or eliminating nettlesome government regulation. The track record of this administration has shown how efficient and cost-effective that solution is, hasn’t it? Waste storage is certainly not going to get any cheaper in the future, either. Already, protests of the people who live in the areas where their politicians have sold them out in order to eagerly accept the money nukes are willing to pay to store radioactive waste are mounting and storage sites are harder and harder to find. Funny thing, no one seems to want a glowing radioactive dump in their back yard. So, initial costs are prohibitively expensive (unless the figures are tweaked to suck in the investors who are then caught in a spiral of cost-overruns), regulatory compliance costs are the highest in the energy business and waste storage costs are escalating to the point that some of the most outrageous proposals (like that of sending the waste out into deep space) may actually be seriously offered in the future. Does that sound like an investment opportunity to you?
2. the nuke is safe; the problems of the past have been fixed. Well, actually no it isn’t and no they haven’t. True, we have had no more Three-Mile Island bumbles, but other countries have. The most infamous, of course, is Chernobyl, but there have been other disasters as well. In all, Wikipedia lists 30 verifiable nuclear accidents world-wide (3 in the 50’s, 4 in the 60’s, 2 in the 70’s, 8 in the 80’s, 3 in the 90’s and 10 in the 2000’s – so far). Few of these accidents involved fatalities – at least that we know of since reporting on the long-term results of these accidents is minimal and extremely difficult to come by – no country wants to admit that accidents or worker carelessness caused liability-producing results and the countries that can, like Russia, simply clamp down on the data that is released to the rest of the world. Thirty accidents since the fifties could be cited as an admirable safety record, but remember that these are verifiable nuclear radiation-related accidents, not normal plant accidents involving one plant worker spilling hot coffee on another worker during break. The potential for widespread catastrophe also makes a significant difference. If a sanitation worker accidentally or deliberately dumps untreated sewage into a local river, the results can be damaging and destructive to the river, the fish and wildlife and even the people downstream for several miles who may drink the contaminated water, but if a nuclear power plant worker vents contaminated fuel rod containment water into that same river, the pollution results are much more deadly and extreme and can persist literally for thousands of years. The scale is way different. As a result of the ‘uncontrolled power excursion’ at Chernobyl, “Approximately fifty fatalities resulted from the accident and its immediate aftermath (most were cleanup personnel) and an additional nine fatal cases of thyroid cancer in children in the Chernobyl area have been attributed to the accident. Radioactive material was spread over much of Europe, with over 100,000 evacuated from the areas immediately surrounding Chernobyl in addition to 300,000 from the areas of fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Approximately 1,000 mi² (3,000 km²) of land (the "Exclusion Zone") around the site have been deemed off-limits for humans for an indefinite period. Several studies by governments, UN agencies and environmental groups have estimated the consequences and eventual number of casualties, and their findings are subject to controversy.” (Wikipedia, “List of civilian nuclear accidents”). Add to this the fact that in the US almost all of our nukes were built between 1950 and 1980 (plant licensing applications fell off rather drastically after the 1979 partial core meltdown at Three-Mile-Island). That means most of these plants are thirty years old or older and for an energy plant made of concrete, steel, wood, cable, valves, etc. that is getting pretty long in the tooth. While close government regulation requires replacement and refurbishment of key containment components, the surrounding infrastructure of these plants is aging. Look at the accident list again. We are seeing MORE accidents, not fewer. Pro-nukers argue that the new round of nukes would solve those problems and that standardizing on the best-of-breed designs would cut costs and reduce the problems with failures resulting from design flaws and the rapid aging of customized plants. But the industry suffers from a credibility problem. Austin was told the South Texas nuke would cost just under a billion. The tab is now $5.5 billion and the new, improved expansion recently permitted by the Texas lege will add to that tab.
To my mind, however, the biggest safety drawback to nuclear power plants is not accidents, but deliberate terrorist attacks. Terrorist organizations have already clearly stated that nuclear power plants are a high-priority target. We ignore that threat at our very great peril. The destruction and death of 9/11 would pale in comparison to an explosion at a nuclear power plant in a populated area that could disperse a poisonous radioactive steam and particle cloud across miles of urban area. Of even more concern is the availability of radioactive waste material which could be used to make a ‘dirty bomb,’ a highly-portable explosive device that could be detonated in a dense urban center with devastating effect. On July 12, 2007 the New York Times printed an article about congressional investigators who obtained a license to procure radioactive materials from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency by submitting phony application information. The NRC mailed a purchasing permit to a post office box (!) without attempting to verify the ownership or identity of the licensee. The resulting permit was then altered, permitting investigators to purchase large quantities of low-level radioactive materials that could have been assembled into a dirty bomb. The fact of the matter is that we are, as a country, reasonably trusting and increasing the amount of radioactive material (alarming large amounts of which are currently unaccounted for, incidentally) available to terrorist who would abuse that trust is neither wise nor safe.
3. the nuke causes less environmental damage than other alternative energy sources.
Well, this is partially true. Since the real answer is (or should be) of real concern to environmentally-conscious citizens, I want to spend some time on it and get the facts straight. Let’s start with laying out the alternative energy sources we are talking about. It’s true that compared to the mining, processing, distribution and use of coal for electrical energy production, the nuke is an environmental winner. Less pollution is created in the mining of Uranium than in mining coal and it contributes no CO2 to the atmosphere. But who in their right mind in the 21st century considers coal a reasonable energy source (unless we exclude the current coal-owning power broker corporations, their investors and lobbyists and, of course, the current administration whose policies have been provided by those same corporations, along with wheelbarrows of hard currency)?
But as Rebecca Solnit points out in an excellent article in the July/August 2007 issue of Orion magazine, “Nuclear power proponents like to picture a bunch of clean plants humming away like beehives across the landscape. Yet when it comes to the mining of uranium, which mostly takes place on indigenous lands from northern Canada to central Australia, you need to picture fossil-fuel-intensive carbon-emitting vehicles, and lots of them—big disgusting diesel-belching ones. But that’s the least of it. The Navajo are fighting right now to prevent uranium mining from resuming on their land, which was severely contaminated by the postwar uranium boom of the 1940s and 1950s. The miners got lung cancer. The children in the area got birth defects and a 1,500 percent increase in ovarian and testicular cancer. And the slag heaps and contaminated pools that were left behind will be radioactive for millennia.” Hardly what most folks would consider a low environmental impact, unless, of course, you are comparing it to blowing mountains apart in West Virginia, obliterating forests, burying watercourses and polluting the groundwater of entire communities to get at the increasingly poor-quality coal below the ground. As Solnit succinctly points out: “Sure, you can say nuclear power is somewhat less carbon-intensive than burning fossil fuels for energy; beating your children to death with a club will prevent them from getting hit by a car. Ravaging the Earth by one irreparable means is not a sensible way to prevent it from being destroyed by another. There are alternatives. We should choose them and use them.” You’d think that went without saying, wouldn’t you?
By comparison, the expense of building wind generators, solar power collectors for rooftops and OTEC plants for electrical power generation continues to fall as the technologies become more efficient and the savings of mass production kick into place. I won’t dwell on the low environmental impact of wind and solar, advantages which should be abundantly clear to any barely literate American citizen who has not been in a coma for the last few years. People interested in the zero-impact environmental footprint of OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion) plants are welcome to read about it in the postings below or at the site made available by the OCEES (Ocean Engineering and Energy Systems) at: http://www.ocees.com/main2.html The point is, that nuclear energy is environmentally ‘low-impact’ only if you compare it only to coal or if you ignore the mining end and the waste disposal end (plant construction costs and impact for OTEC plants are also considerably lower, but there are those who would argue that this is an economic rather than an environmental issue – actually it is both, but that’s another article.)
4. the nuke is proven technology; other alternative energy solutions are unproven and may prove to be dead ends.
OK, this is just flat wrong. And yet James Lovelock, the Gaia scientist and nuke apologist mentioned at the beginning of this article, contends: “We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear—the one safe, available, energy source—now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.” (Orion, July/August, 2007)
In that same Orion article, Solnit counters: “If you sit next to Lovelock, you might start by mentioning that half the farms in this country had windmills before Marie Curie figured out anything about radiation or Lise Meitner surmised that atoms could be split. Wind power is not visionary in the sense of experimental. Neither is solar, which is already widely used.” Neither, I might add, is OTEC technology which is currently in use and producing electricity for the Kona coast in Hawaii, in Singapore and which will soon be supplying the energy needs for the US Naval Base in Diego Garcia (as well as producing fresh drinking water, water-cooled air conditioning and large, useable quantities of H2 to meet the demands of the future hydrogen fuel cell-based automobile industry.) Finally, Lovelock’s contention that nuclear power is “available” is also misleading. Yes, the electricity produced by current nukes is available, but we are using it (until the next shutdown, anyway). Nuke plant construction is notoriously slow and problem-plagued (cf. South Texas nuke) and tends to take much longer to build than promised (a part of the overrun problem), especially when irate customers like the City of Austin get involved in the project and file lawsuits to get corrupt construction companies dismissed from the projects for gross criminal malfeasance and mismanagement (Austin filed three lawsuits, one as one of the owners of STP in 1981 against Brown & Root for breach of contract, settled in 1985, one in 1983 against Houston Power & Light, who took over from Brown & Root and another in 1994 to recover the fuel costs of an extended outage in the early 90’s.) The initial feasibility study on the STP was launched in 1971 by four partners: Houston Power and Light, the City of Austin, the City of San Antonio and Central Power and Light (CPL). Unit 1 finally came on-line August 25, 1988. Unit 2 came on-line June 19th, 1989. Granted, nuke-builders have probably worked out a few kinks in the process since then, but an 18-year stretch between feasibility and switching on the juice is hardly what I would consider ‘availability.’
It is true that we face a bleak energy future. Like the seemingly interminable war in Iraq, there are no simple, inexpensive or easy solutions. Fossil fuels are killing the planet and quickly rather than slowly. We have failed, as a people and as citizens to insist that the current administration, blinkered by energy policies dictated by 19th-century robber baron politics, take significant action to protect our world and to develop alternative sources of energy. As a consequence we are way late in working on true solutions and throwing the amount of will and money behind those solutions that we should have. It may very well be too late. We may have passed a tipping point, a point beyond which there is no return. But ours is a nation of hope – not hope based on sitting on our hands and having faith that the Big Guy will bail us out of this one, but hope that can be part of a determination to make the sacrifices, pay the costs, think it through, use our native ingenuity and drive to save this planet for ourselves and our children and grandchildren and to do what we can to re-claim our future. In order to do that, we must resist the urge to panic and settle for failed solutions. The Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the most level-headed and objective groups around these days, has considered nuclear power very carefully and from a scientific perspective. Although they do not shut the door to the possible future development of nuclear power as an energy source, their final conclusion is: “Prudence dictates that we develop as many options to reduce global warming emissions as possible, and begin by deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk. Nuclear power today does not meet these criteria.” I could not agree more.