New Nukes Or No Nukes?

Sluggish Domestic Market for Power Plants Doesn't Mean There's No Waste to Dump

by Barbara George

There have been no new nuclear plants ordered in the US since 1979. This leads most people in the US to believe that the nuclear industry is not expanding. However, US companies still build nuclear power plants abroad. And the industry keeps its options alive here in the US by competing in a highly subsidized government contest for new reactor designs.

Two designs have been approved so far. To protect industry profits from pesky concerned citizens and workers, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (nrc) rammed through one-step licensing . (The nrc is a government agency with the conflicting dual mission of promoting and regulating nuclear power.)

Previously, utilities were required to hold public hearings after finishing construction, before they received an operating license. Significant problems were often revealed at these hearings. For example, public hearings in California brought evidence to light that the Diablo Canyon reactor was actually built backwards because the blueprints had been reversed. It took two years to correct this error. Now, post- construction hearings are no longer required; a utility can get a license to build and operate a plant before construction begins. The public can only hope the thing is right-side up.

One-step licensing may reduce construction costs, but nuclear power will never be economical due to the enormous liability of the waste. When the costs of nuclear waste management are included, "renewable" energy sources (such as solar, wind, hydro and biomass) are much more economical than nukes. Today's reactors are financial disasters.

The real costs of nuclear power have always been clouded by the "magic"it promised. Nuclear power was supposed to provide cheap energy for world-wide US corporate enterprises, and nuclear weapons (relatively cheap, compared to ground troops, planes and ships) were intended to control countries where the US had "vital interests." Nuclear power appeared at the very moment, in the early 50s, when Arab demands for a (small) share of oil profits threatened to erode US domination of Middle East oil supplies. The US went nuclear, followed by other nations.

All those governments chose to heavily subsidize their nuclear industries, which could never survive in an open marketplace. All refused to face the most serious costs. Waste management, liability, decommissioning (dismantling) the reactors and cleanup of contaminated sites were not fully included in utility rates or government budgets. Those accounts were postponed to a future just now beginning to arrive.

Nuclear liability is a worldwide question, with some scary answers; the fall of the ussr has been attributed partly to the monetary and social costs of Chernobyl and other radioactive contamination. The US is trying to clean up its nuclear weapons complexes, at an estimated cost of $150 billion. The cost will probably be much higher, but the Republicans have slashed the cleanup fund and the government may simply abandon the effort.

All the radioactive elements in fallout from nuclear explosions are also present in the waste from reactors producing either power or weapons. Few people realize that our 110 nuclear power plants have produced twenty times more radioactivity than our nuclear weapons program!

Initially, utilities were reluctant to build nuclear plants because of the potential costs. Two factors persuaded them to go ahead: the federal government promised to remove the fuel rod waste; and Congress passed the Price-Andersen Act limiting the utilities' liability in the event of an accident. Costs from an accident near a large city were estimated to be $17 billion (in 1957 $); the utilities' liability was capped at $7 billion.

The government planned to reprocess used fuel rods to extract plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. The early commercial waste reprocessing program, however, turned out to be a technical -- as well as economic and environmental -- disaster. The government then built special reactors to produce plutonium for military use, and maintained an artificial separation between nuclear power and the nuclear weapons program ever since. None of the other nuclear powers bother with this ruse.

The utilities are now determined to force the government to honor its commitment to establish a facility for commercial fuel-rod waste. Recently, the government discarded any pretense of seeking the most stable geological site, and chose earthquake-prone Yucca Mountain, because Nevada is sparsely populated and politically weak.

The delay in establishing a fuel-rod repository makes the utilities extremely nervous, as the spent fuel storage pools at older reactors have long since filled up. The nrc allowed utilities to re-rack the pools, storing rods much closer together to increase pool capacity (and increase the risk). The nrc recently approved "Dry Casks" as an alternative storage medium. The casks offer an opportunity for "monitored retrievable storage" at reactor sites, but instead, Congress is considering a bill whereby the government would immediately take title to this waste, and transport it to an "interim" facility at Yucca Mountain, to await the opening of an underground facility.

New truck and rail casks, each holding more than 200 times the radioactivity created by the bombing of Hiroshima, would transport 16,000 shipments of fuel rods through 43 states. Transport would start in 1998 and continue for at least 30 years. Typically, the cost of training and equipping local emergency response teams for potentially cataclysmic transport accidents has been all but ignored.

Even further down the list of priorities for both the utilities and the government, is responsible care of all the other radioactive waste (non fuel-rod waste). If Ward Valley is nationalized (as will very likely happen to the first llrw dump that opens), it could become the depository for the innards of all 55 power plants due for decommissioning in the next 30 years.

For many years the federal government maintained six landfills for llrw waste. All of them leaked radiation; only one is still open (Barnwell, SC). US Ecology, the Ward Valley contractor, operated three of these landfills in the shoddiest possible manner in the states of Illinois, Kentucky, and Nevada. These states have all attempted (without success) to force US Ecology to pay for the mess they left behind. Dump rates for llrw are inadequate even for short-term cleanup, let alone for long-term dump management or cleanup, which becomes the responsibility of the state where each dump is located. At Ward Valley, US Ecology is planning to charge $350 per cubic foot of waste, a trivial amount considering the tens of thousands of years of lethal danger. After 30 years, US Ecology can walk away from the dump, which will then belong to the taxpayers of California, forever.

A discussion of the economics of nuclear power would not be complete without mention of its health costs. Numbers are hard to come by thanks to government and industry refusal to provide data to researchers. The only long-term epidemiological study (of workers at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex) was canceled when the data started to show a disturbing rise in cancer and death rates compared to the population at large. The renowned radiation epidemiologist Dr. Rosalie Bertell continued the research with private grants after the government pulled out. Bertell concluded that very low levels of radiation are much more dangerous than previously believed, because they alter the chemistry of cells without killing them, thus producing mutations, disease and sterility.

The government concedes radiation has caused some deaths, but has gone to great lengths to obscure radiation effects.

The air around Three Mile Island was not properly monitored in the crucial period right after the accident when most of the radiation escaped, and no formal epidemiological study was conducted. These omissions gave the utility "deniability" for local residents' health problems. Chernobyl data is likewise flawed because of Soviet secrecy and lack of monitoring.

In spite of the scarcity of data, scientists have long known that there are adverse health effects of radiation. It is certain that some of the increase in cancer and other diseases in the past 50 years is due to radiation; there's no way of knowing how much. Some recent news from Russia, however, gives a chilling glimpse of the scope of the problem.

Russian male life expectancy has dropped from 64 to 57 in the past four years. the death rate is nearly double the birth rate, while infant mortality has risen 15 percent in each of the last two years. More than ten percent of newborn children have serious birth defects, and half of all school children suffer from chronic illnesses. At partial fault is one of the great nuclear crimes against humanity: agricultural products from the Chernobyl-contaminated regions of the Ukraine and Belarus were deliberately shipped throughout the Soviet Union, without labeling, thus irradiating the entire population.

Dumping nuclear reactors and other so-called "low-level" radioactive waste in Ward Valley could produce similar results. After the radioactivity reaches ground water and flows into the Colorado River (or a waste truck or train has a bad accident on the bridge) a large part of North America's food supply (in the Imperial Valley and Baja) would be irrigated with radioactive water. When we're poisoning whole ecosystems, it is absurd to speak of economics at all, but this makes no sense financially or in any other way.

Barbara George is Executive Director of Focus on Energy Decisions, an organization promoting sustainable energy choices.