2009/07/23: Appleton Post-Crescent: Nuclear power not as green, safe or cheap as supporters say - Bill Christofferson

Appleton Post Crescent opinion column

by WNPJ Co-Chair Bill Christofferson:

Nuclear power not as green, safe or cheap as supporters say

Concern about climate change has sparked a campaign by the nuclear power industry to try to sell itself as a "clean" energy solution, with Wisconsin a key target.

A recent guest column in this newspaper by the head of the Wisconsin Technology Council is part of the campaign to persuade the Legislature and governor to open the door to more reactors in Wisconsin. The industry claims it emits no greenhouse gases. But there are significant carbon emissions at every step of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Uranium mining, milling, enrichment, fuel fabrication, transportation, power plant construction, decommissioning and nuclear waste storage — all involve the burning of fossil fuels.

Safety, waste disposal and cost are even better reasons that nuclear energy should not be part of the equation in combating global warming.

Safety is an ever-present issue for nuclear reactors. Wisconsin has not suffered a major accident. But only five "red findings" — the highest safety failure warnings in the industry — have ever been issued by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Three of the five went to the Point Beach plant, near Two Rivers. Disposal of deadly radioactive waste produced by those reactors is a major safety concern.

That's why Wisconsin wisely passed a law in 1984 that forbids any new plants to be built until: (1) There is a federally licensed facility to dispose of high-level radioactive waste and (2) The Public Service Commission makes a finding that nuclear power makes economic sense.

The industry still can't meet those two tests, so now it wants to changes the standards, rather than solve the problems.

After more than 50 years of producing highly radioactive waste, there is still no safe way to permanently dispose of it. Some of the by-products of generating nuclear power are so dangerous to human health and the environment that the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules last September requiring a disposal site be able to protect the public from radiation released by the waste for up to one million years.

A million years. To put that into some perspective, 15,000 years ago, Wisconsin was covered by glaciers.

Three commercial reactors in Wisconsin generate more nuclear waste every day. It has been accumulating for three decades in temporary storage facilities next to the reactors at Point Beach and Kewaunee, near Lake Michigan.

To build more reactors to produce more dangerous waste while we have no safe means of disposal is beyond irresponsible. It's unconscionable.

Then there's the cost — as much $10 billion per plant, with 10 years to build one. It doesn't make economic sense, which is why the nuclear industry is asking Congress for $50 billion in subsidies in the form of loan guarantees.

Wisconsin is about to experience a full-scale debate on the subject. The Governor's Task Force on Global Warming has issued recommendations that include easing the restrictions on nuclear power, as part of a package of other changes sought by environmentalists and the utilities. A major, well-funded sales campaign is being prepared, and the nuclear industry already has registered four paid lobbyists in Madison.

Nuclear power makes no more sense today than it did when the law was passed in 1984. Wisconsin must address the climate crisis, but renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies are faster, cheaper, safer and cleaner strategies for reducing greenhouse emissions than nuclear power.

The choice between coal and nuclear power is a false one. Wisconsin can be both carbon-free and nuclear-free. That should be our goal.