On Thursday, President Obama ordered a comprehensive review
of U.S. nuclear plants. Let's hope it's more than talk. Germany
is rescinding its plan to extend the operating lives of its aging nuclear power plants. China
is freezing and reviewing plans to build new nuclear plants. Switzerland
has suspended approval of three new nuclear plants. New England
is considering reconsidering what to do now that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has relicensed a plant in Vermont that is similar in age and design to the one now in crisis in Japan. Another similar plant, in Iowa
, was relicensed just in December. Earlier this past week, President Obama
clearly still supported expansion of nuclear power, while the White House said they will learn from the crisis in Japan. Presumably, that learning will include not repeating this
Speaking at a town hall meeting in October 2009, Obama specifically cited Japan as a model for America's nuclear renaissance. "There's no reason why, technologically, we can't employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way," Obama said. "Japan does it and France does it, and it doesn't have greenhouse gas emissions, so it would be stupid for us not to do that in a much more effective way."
Well, he still has France. Sort of. But Stupid? The real stupidity would be in trusting anything the nuclear industry says or does. With Japan still in crisis, the nuclear industry has been quick to assert that it can't happen here, and that the Japanese plants were old and poorly designed. And never mind that the industry has been extending the lives of and relicensing similar plants here. The industry always tells us their designs are safe. They told us that about the plants now in at least partial meltdown. They tell us that about the similar plants that are being relicensed. They tell us that about new plant designs. Of course, the design of the Japanese reactors had been criticized as potentially dangerous as long ago as 1972. But back then they assured everyone that it was all okay. Now the same industry that assured us that these reactors were all okay wants us to believe that the new reactor designs are all okay. We can trust them, this time.
This is an industry with a long record of cover-ups of dangerously damaged facilities, and cover-ups of safety violations, and unreported radioactive leaks, and inadequate waste storage protections, and napping guards, and more radioactive leaks, and more radioactive leaks, and on and on. WikiLeaks even comes into play, with the revelation that in December 2008 an official of the International Atomic Energy Agency specifically warned that seismic safeguards at nuclear plants were outdated and inadequate. Which was dutifully ignored by the typically dutiful media, the industry, and governments. Which may be the real but unintended meaning of the president's words about nuclear power, that we can "do that in a much more effective way."
But the worst part of the president's statement was the entire framing. Because proponents of nuclear power latched onto climate change as their latest, greatest rationale for continuing to support a failed technology, and the president clearly buys it. The argument usually boils down to the idea that there is no other energy option that can replace fossil fuels on a timetable sufficient to meet the impending climate crisis. But what that argument's purveyors fail to mention is that the likelihood of nuclear power itself replacing fossil fuels on such a timetable is no greater than that of much cleaner alternatives. First is this, from Reuters, from a couple years ago:
Nuclear power would only curb climate change by expanding worldwide at the rate it grew from 1981 to 1990, its busiest decade, and keep up that rate for half a century, a report said on Thursday.
Specifically, that would require adding on average 14 plants each year for the next 50 years, all the while building an average of 7.4 plants to replace those that will be retired, the report by environmental leaders, industry executives and academics said.
Twenty-one new plants a year, for 50 years. Over a thousand new plants. If that sounds like an impossibly enormous number of plants to build, that's because it is. And the authors of the report cited by Reuters bring a wide variety of expertise (pdf):
Twenty-seven individuals from organizations spanning a broad ideological spectrum, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and GE Energy, spent nine months on the report, called "The Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding."
The report itself can be found here.
But if building a thousand new plants over 50 years isn't bad enough, the story gets even worse.
While the report also supported storing U.S. nuclear waste at power plants until the long-stalled Yucca Mountain repository opens, 10 dumps the size of Yucca Mountain would be needed to store the extra generated waste by the needed nuclear generation boom.
A 2008 DOE estimate put the cost of building and operating Yucca Mountain at $90,000,000,000. As in $90 billion. As in 10 dumps that size would cost $900 billion. And siting the repository at Yucca Mountain has been so controversial for so many years that, very much to its credit, the Obama administration's Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a 2009 Senate hearing that Yucca Mountain no longer was even considered an option. In July of that year, the Democratic Senate voted to shut it down. This vote, of course, hasn't stopped Republicans from trying to revive it. But whether or not they succeed, let's also try to find 10 more for the additional waste. And then let's try to fund them. The onus will be on us. At a price approaching a trillion dollars just for the waste. And as for the plants themselves?
Despite the propaganda, and even compared to other energy sources, nuclear plants are staggeringly expensive to build, operate, maintain, and decommission. Recent estimates, extrapolated to the cost of building over 1,000 new plants, puts the total at somewhere in the vicinity of an extremely inefficient half a trillion dollars, if not even more. Add these estimates to the cost of waste storage and the price tag comes in at over a trillion and a half dollars. And given the industry's track record, those numbers certainly will rise. A lot. This reality didn't stop the Obama administration from pushing $8,300,000,000 in new loan guarantees for the industry, despite a Congressional Budget Office report that concluded:
CBO considers the risk of default on such a loan guarantee to be very high—well above 50 percent.
This report makes providing those loan guarantees just a bit curious. And even more curious was the administration's desire to increase the total amount of loan guarantees to a staggering $54 billion, with an estimated default risk that would make those loans nothing more than subsidies—as in corporate welfare—which long has been the only means of keeping the nuclear power industry on life support.
And if all of that isn't bad enough, it gets still worse. As reported on the Bio-Medicine website:
Physicist Joshua Pearce of Clarion University of Pennsylvania has attempted to balance the nuclear books and finds the bottom line simply does not add up. There are several problems that he says cannot be overcome if the nuclear power option is taken in preference to renewable energy sources.
The president's assertion that nuclear power doesn't have greenhouse emissions ignores some critical factors.
However, it is the whole-of-life cycle analysis that Pearce has investigated that shows nuclear power is far from the "emission-free panacea" claimed by many of its proponents. Each stage of the nuclear-fuel cycle including power plant construction, mining/milling uranium ores, fuel conversion, enrichment (or de-enrichment of nuclear weapons), fabrication, operation, decommissioning, and for short- and long-term waste disposal contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, he explains.
Multiplied by a thousand, if we are to build, operate, maintain, and decommission enough plants to make any impact on climate change—which would be undermined by the very process of building, operating, maintaining, and decommissioning the plants.
Pearce's research was published by the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, and can be found here.
And taking it one step further was Professor Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University:
The best ways to improve energy security, mitigate global warming and reduce the number of deaths caused by air pollution are blowing in the wind and rippling in the water, not growing on prairies or glowing inside nuclear power plants, says Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford.
And "clean coal," which involves capturing carbon emissions and sequestering them in the earth, is not clean at all, he asserts.
Jacobson has conducted the first quantitative, scientific evaluation of the proposed, major, energy-related solutions by assessing not only their potential for delivering energy for electricity and vehicles, but also their impacts on global warming, human health, energy security, water supply, space requirements, wildlife, water pollution, reliability and sustainability. His findings indicate that the options that are getting the most attention are between 25 to 1,000 times more polluting than the best available options. The paper with his findings will be published in the next issue of Energy and Environmental Science but is available online now. Jacobson is also director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford.
On Tuesday, Secretary Chu reiterated the president's continued support of nuclear power:
"The president and the administration believe we have to be looking very, very closely at the events in Japan. We have to apply whatever lessons that can be and will be learned from what has happened and what is happening in Japan," Chu explained. "Those lessons would then be applied to first look at our current existing fleet of reactors, to make sure that they can be used safely and… how as one proceeds forward, any lessons learned can be applied."
If any lessons are learned, it will be that one proceeds forward without nuclear power. Nuclear power is no solution, rather it is part of the problem; and given the risks of nuclear power, the time, effort, and money are better spent elsewhere.