2009/07/14:LaCrosse Tribune: The nuclear energy option is neither safe nor affordable - Al Gedicks of Wisconsin Resources Protection Council

Opinion column by Al Gedicks of Wisconsin Resources Protection Council:

Tom Bice claims that we can achieve energy independence by investing in nuclear power (“Nuclear power is the answer to energy independence,” July 1 Tribune). He also claims that nuclear power is “the safest power source ever developed.”

Both claims are misleading.

The most recent cost projections for new nuclear reactors are three and four times as high as the projections in 2005. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimates that building a new 1,000-megawatt reactor would cost up to $7.5 billion. In Missouri, the first of the next generation reactors was put on hold because of the $6 billion price tag. According to Thomas Voss, the president of the electric utility that is proposing the plant, Ameren UE, “A large plant would be difficult under the best of conditions, but in today’s credit-constrained markets, without supporting state energy policies, we believe getting financial backing for these projects is impossible.”

Bice says that consumers are spending too much money on energy but then he suggests that we build 200 nuclear plants in the next decade. According to Wall Street and independent analysts, the cost of building 200 new reactors would be in the range of $4 trillion to $8 trillion over the life of the reactors. And who is going to pay these costs? Some states have already changed the law so that consumers begin footing the bill, even before construction begins.

In 2005, Congress passed an energy bill containing numerous taxpayer-financed subsidies for new nuclear reactors, including loan guarantees, extended liability insurance and tax credits. The most recent Senate energy bill gives a nine-member unelected board the power to give unlimited taxpayer loan guarantees for construction of new nuclear reactors. If the private capital markets are unwilling to invest in nuclear energy because it is too risky, then why should ratepayers and taxpayers be forced to bear this cost?

The diversion of trillions of dollars on nuclear power makes no economic sense. Wind energy is already more economical than nuclear energy. Independent energy analysts estimate efficiency and renewable energy costs at an average of 6 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 12 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity from nuclear reactors. This comparison does not include the additional costs for nuclear of disposing of waste, insuring plants against an accident and decommissioning the plants at the end of their lives.

Energy analyst Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute have documented that on a worldwide basis the decentralized, low- or no-carbon sources of electricity are already bigger than nuclear power and will continue to leave nuclear power in the dust. In 2004 alone, co-generation (producing electricity and useful heat together) and renewable sources (wind, biomass power, geothermal, small hydro, and solar) added 5.9 times as much net generating capacity and 2.9 times as much electricity as nuclear power did. These decentralized sources of energy can also deliver electricity at one-third the cost of a new nuclear power plant and thus buy three times as much climate solution per dollar as spending the same dollar on the nuclear plant.

Nuclear plants take too long to build and investors are unwilling to put up the necessary capital. We only have about 10 years to mount a global effort against climate change; we cannot possibly build all the nuclear plants that would be necessary to reduce global carbon emissions in this time.

The most serious challenge to the myth of “safe nuclear power” came from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June 2008, when it said that all cost estimates for new nuclear reactors, and all licensing and construction schedules were uncertain because hundreds of key design components have not been officially approved. Westinghouse has already been forced to withdraw key designs, including such major components as the reactor building, control room, cooling system and engineering designs. Despite all the hype about a nuclear revival, there is no approved design for such plants and with no firm design there is no firm price tag.

After four years of construction, the first “new generation” French reactor being built in Finland is already two years behind schedule and more than $2.5 billion over budget. Areva, the French company building the plant, has refused to say when it will go online.

Finally, the waste from nuclear power plants will be toxic for humans for more than 100,000 years. Yet Bice says the problem of storing nuclear waste is “mostly political,” thus ignoring dozens of scientific studies of the proposed Yucca Mountain radioactive waste dump in Nevada, including a National Research Council report noting the “scientific impossibility” of making a container last 10,000 years. The Department of Energy’s own studies show that once the containers begin to leak, the Yucca Mountain rock is practically useless in holding back the radioactive materials.President Barack Obama has wisely called for an end to the Yucca Mountain project and cut off all the project’s funding.

Nuclear power is neither safe nor economical. There is no safe method of storing the nuclear waste that we already have; why would anyone want to produce more waste that will be stored in temporary facilities, leaking and corroding, and presenting vulnerable targets and security risks? We already have renewable energy technologies that are safer, cheaper, faster, more secure and less wasteful than nuclear power. Let’s not put our faith and scarce capital in an industry that Forbes magazine described in 1985 as “the largest managerial disaster in history .”

Al Gedicks is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and the author of “Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.”

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