A recent call by respected environmental leader, Professor James Lovelock, to combat global climate change by building nuclear plants may seem logical on the surface.
Afterall, we don’t hear much about nukes these days-just the occasional story of a forced shut down or the ongoing story about the controversy surrounding Bush’s decision to move forward with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada-opposed, incidentally, by nearly everyone in Nevada.
But, nukes problems are many-waste, security, lack of political support and most ominous for the proponents themselves, the enormous cost and doubt about dealing with the other issues.
When Indiana’s Marble Hill plant was forced to shut down construction in 1984, more than $2.8 billion had been squandered by an arrogant Public Service Indiana and it was only 20% complete. That compares with an original cost estimate of $700 million when the plants were announced.
Capital markets found that money could not be spent fast enough to finish a nuke. It was so bad that PST’s sister utility in Cinergy, Cincinnati Gas & Electric canceled their Zimmer nuke when it was more than 90% complete and converted it to coal.
Across the US, nuclear investors saw their investments wither in the foul wind that followed Three Mile Island. It was not only construction costs that ran uncontrolled. Nukes require “enriched uranium” to form their fuel pellets. The record of enrichments plants around the country is a legacy of waste, disease and fraud.
Since the nuclear industry has failed to grow, we have not had a community seeking to build an enrichment facility for a very long time. Enrichment is just the second phase of the nuclear fuel cycle. First comes mining of the precious uranium which, by itself, leaves huge volumes of contaminated waste that mainly stays piled up on mining company land.
No solution for that is even discussed.
Nuclear’s third phase is transporting the commercial grade fuel. It is usually transported quietly by either rail or truck through unsuspecting communities. So far the record is good but we only operate slightly more than 100 nuclear plants in the US today. Will that record remain if we increase the number to, say, 300 plants across Central America and the US?
Opposition to nukes in the past has mainly been locally based. Marble Hill was just one of many nukes that were either forced to cease construction by democratic action or stockholder revolt. Marble Hill caused PSI stock to fall from $28 per share during the height of construction to only $7 per share and should have caused PSI to go belly up, and it would have if it had not been bailed out by then Indiana Governor Orr’s administration.
Other nukes were either canceled or drastically reduced in size.
Resistance grew strong after the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 and the disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.
There has not been a nuclear facility to break ground since.
It is academic to wonder how such a proposal would be met today in a community desperate for “jobs” at any cost. We are likely to find out in the near future since Bush is busy promoting more nukes and the huge taxpayer subsidies to make it happen.
Trade issues come to bear as well. It used to be that corporations that owned U.S. based nukes had to be owned by Americans only. Free trade rules are likely to render that moot. Perhaps some angry Saudis could build a nuke in our midst in deference to the World Trade Organization.
Or maybe, since political opposition is strong in the US, we will just build the nukes in Honduras or another Central American Free Trade Association country to promote economic development in that region.
Yes, there are safety problems with nuclear plants. Since they are built by humans and operated by humans, they are subject to error all along the way. What would be a minor error at a coal plant could turn into a major disaster at a nuke. They must operate perfectly but yet they usually do not.
Nukes in the private sector are built and operated by people who are trying to cut as many costs as possible so they can brag to their bosses about their profitability. News that major expense will be required to make something right while the plant is shut down for extensive repairs will not gain the plant manager favor in a multinational corporation hierarchy. That results in less than adequate oversight at any level of operation.
Then, too, the regulatory feature of nukes has been severely compromised in ways that appear to allow nearly self regulation. A good example is First Energy’s Davis-Besse plant in Ohio which had boron rusting away the steel dome of one of the units for years before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted. Numerous inspections failed to reveal the flaw. Most nukes are now owned by energy merchants, it is almost certain that the voluntary approach to inspection will be lacking.
But it is not just the possibility of accidents that make nukes scary for neighbors, near and far. In today’s world, terrorism is a far greater threat to the sanguine prospect of nuclear energy. Many of today’s nukes are within a few feet of roads or highways that are accessible to the public. It may be that concrete containment buildings may be impervious to a rocket propelled grenade or a tornado, but they have never really been tested against a larger, tank type of weapon or a 747 piloted by a terrorist.
But, the greatest threat from terrorists is probably a well-planned plant takeover by armed insurgents who would face only locally trained pretend-a-cops who stand in their way. Taking over a plant could result not only in holding an entire country hostage, but the right person at the controls could cause a disaster way beyond that experienced at either TMI or Chernobyl.
Should that happen, the radiation unleashed could have devastating impacts on regional and global mortality and morbidity as well as severely impacting the genetics of several future generations.
And, then there is nuclear waste.
Each 1000 megawatt reactor yields enough plutonium each year to produce as many as forty nuclear bombs. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that in 24,000 years, half of its potency is gone. It takes at least ten half-lifes for it to become moderately inert-that is nearly a quarter million years.
It seems logical to assume that in a quarter million years, there may be some despot emerge who would have the ability to process ever increasing volumes of nuclear waste into military use, at least creating a crude but highly lethal weapon. If we increase the volume of nuclear waste, there will be a corresponding volume of dirty bomb grade plutonium. It is impossible to avoid.
But that is just one aspect of the nuclear waste issue. With such extraordinary long potency, nuclear waste must be kept from our physical environment forever. That is a task that has never been accomplished.
What right do we have, as 21st Century humans whose species has existed for just about a quarter of the time it will take for today’s plutonium to decay, to condemn future generations to protecting themselves from our greed for energy?
What makes us think that we even need additional energy when our power plants operate at levels barely above 30% efficient so we can use it in appliances that operate at even less efficient levels?
There is only one reason to build new power plants, nuclear, or coal-so we can continue to needlessly consume as if there is no tomorrow and create waste that will end up burying us in our own filth. And, they say that man has dominion over the Earth and all its beings-indeed!
A massive public and private program to rebuild our energy infrastructure with more efficient appliances and generators is a tremendous economic growth opportunity. Efficiency gains could be our new export industry.
Lovelock is right to recognize the immediate need to respond to global warming, but nuclear power carries too heavy a price for our grandkids to pay.
JOHN BLAIR runs Valley Watch, an environmental group in Evansville, Indiana that battles against big coal and the nuclear industry. In 1979, he won the Pulitzer Prize for news photography. He can be reached at: email@example.com