5/26/09: Capital Times: Pam Kleiss: Don't ignore two big drawbacks to nuke power

Op ed column by the executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility:

In the Wisconsin Public Service Commission's unanimous rejection of the Cassville coal-fired power plant proposal last fall, the Wisconsin State Journal saw two words: "Go nuclear!"

Since then the paper has published five editorials urging the repeal of the state's nuclear "moratorium," and sidestepping nuclear power's two outstanding problems: high cost to ratepayers and the absence of a long-term storage site for radioactive waste.

The nuclear industry and its proponents see a unique opportunity right now. They know that there is widespread public concern about the environmental harm of global warming. They are eager to get a part of the large-scale public and private investment in electrical production and distribution to combat global warming. They hope we'll see the nuclear industry through "green-colored" glasses, as reliable, safe and cost-effective.

But the nuclear industry doesn't deserve any funding earmarked for global warming solutions. It is neither a "developing" nor "renewable" industry. In fact, the nuclear industry has been raiding our collective pocketbook for the past 50 years. From insuring plant construction costs through federal loan guarantees, to insuring operating reactors for radioactive leak or accident, to funding a long-term waste storage site, Wisconsin taxpayers pay daily to prop up the nuclear industry.

We also pay when the promise of nuclear technology fails: monitoring radioactive sites abandoned due to irresponsible mining practices, nuclear reactor accident and radioactive leaks. Is this taxpayer/ratepayer-funded model of energy production the one the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board supports? Shall we legislate a nuclear energy complex funded from state and federal tax dollars, as French taxpayers do with AREVA? If so, the cost will be astounding.

Current nuclear power plant construction applications before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are estimated at between $6 billion and $10 billion per plant (by comparison, the failed proposal for a coal-fired plant in Cassville was projected to cost $1.3 billion). What happens if some of the projections of the nuclear industry come true? If by 2040 there are dozens of new plants and the existing 103 plants creating radioactive waste, plus a new federally funded industry reprocessing spent fuel rods and creating additional and more volatile nuclear waste, who will bear the operational and public health cost?

With the Obama administration having recently put the kibosh on the Yucca Mountain storage facility, Wisconsin has the perfect geological site available near Ladysmith for long-term radioactive waste storage. Does this scenario sound like boon or bust for Wisconsin citizens?

Perhaps the Wisconsin State Journal should have taken the opportunity to speak with Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, when he was in Madison on May 19 at the State Capitol. Makhijani's research shows how we can achieve a carbon-free, nuclear-free U.S. economy by 2040, without a significant reduction of quality of life. The editorial board would have found out that there are viable, safe and truly sustainable alternatives to coal and nuclear electrical generation. These technologies are already more cost-efficient than nuclear power, and can be built and operating in time to avert global warming's gravest harm to public health.

Wisconsinites should not be fooled by concerns that we will "miss the boat" on taxpayer-subsidized funding for nuclear power. Renewable energy technologies are proven, cost-effective and operate without the high cost and public health liabilities of electricity generated by nuclear reactors. A "smart" distributed electricity grid sourced from renewable energy will be an asset to the Wisconsin economy and proudly manifest our commitment to improved public health and a sustainable environment.


Pam Kleiss is executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility Wisconsin.