Combating Global Climate Change
The Case against Nuclear Powerby Michele Boyd
February 13, 2007
The Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Toledo, Ohio.
Michele Boyd is the legislative director for Public Citizenâ€™s Energy Program. Public Citizen is a 35-year-old public interest organization with more than 100,000 members nationwide.
Climate change is undeniably the most urgent problem facing the world today. The future effects of global warming depend largely upon the energy path we take now. In a last ditch effort, the declining nuclear industry has seized on the publicâ€™s legitimate concerns about climate change, deteriorating air quality, and dependence on foreign oil, claiming that nuclear power must be â€œpart of the mixâ€ for solving these serious environmental, public health, and security problems. But as its history has shown, nuclear power is not a solution.
Currently, about 440 nuclear plants are operating worldwide. Experts estimate that about 800 large reactors would have to be built around the world by 2050 just to achieve a significant reduction in the expected increase in carbon dioxide emissions. This would require building as many as one reactor every 18 days for 40 years. Building new reactors requires massive public subsidies, polluting uranium mining, as well as increased proliferation, accident, and terrorism risks. Adding so many new reactors would mean generating five times more highly radioactive nuclear waste than is being generated today, which would require a waste dump the size of the proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be created somewhere on earth every three to four years.
Building more nuclear plants will not reduce our dependence on oil or foreign fuel. Less than three percent of oil consumed in the United States is used to fuel electric power plants; the rest is used in the transportation, home heating oil, and industrial manufacturing sectors. Nuclear power is used to produce electricity, but we do not plug our automobiles into the electricity grid. Nuclear power also does not alleviate our dependence on foreign sources of energy, because most of the uranium used to run our nuclear reactors is imported from foreign countries. Moreover, the United States cannot become self-dependent in the future, with only the eighth largest recoverable uranium reserves in the world and increasing local opposition to mining activities.
No country in the world has found a solution for the cost, waste and security problems associated with nuclear power. In contrast, renewable energy sources and efficiency measures are faster, cleaner, and cheaper solutions to climate change that do not entail these burdens.
Nuclear Power is Too Expensive
Nuclear power is actually draining resources away from real solutions to climate change. According to a 2000 study by the Renewable Energy Policy Project, from 1947 through 1999, the nuclear industry received more than US$115 billion in direct taxpayer subsidies. This does not include costs related to pollution from uranium mining, risks from nuclear weapons proliferation, or the management of radioactive waste. During this same period, federal subsidies for wind and solar power combined totaled a mere $5.7 billion.
No new nuclear power plants have been licensed in the United States in more than 30 years. The nuclear industry claims it only needs help for the â€œfirst several plantsâ€â€”the same claim that it made fifty years ago. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT), which President Bush signed into law in August last year, authorizes another US$13 billion in â€œcradle-to-graveâ€ subsidies and tax breaks, as well as other incentives, for the mature and very wealthy nuclear industry. In comparison, EPACT allocates US$3.2 billion for renewable energy tax breaks and US$2.1 billion for energy efficiency vehicles.
Is EPACT Enough to Resuscitate Nuclear Power?
Historically, nuclear construction cost estimates in the United States have been notoriously inaccurate. As the Energy Information Administration reports, the estimated construction costs for existing nuclear reactors were frequently wrong by a factor of two or more.
The same is happening again with plants being built in Europe and Asia. The French government-owned company Areva is currently building a 1600 MW reactor in Finland, the same reactor design that the US utility Constellation is considering building in Maryland. Plant construction, which was started in April 2005, is already 18 months behind schedule and has cost the company US$922 million thus far.
To mitigate these high upfront costs, EPACT authorizes â€œsuch sums as necessaryâ€ for taxpayer-backed loan guarantees covering up to 80 percent of the cost of a range of energy projects, including new reactors. Public Citizen calculated that an 80 percent loan guarantee for six reactors could potentially cost taxpayers US$6 billion, assuming at 50 percent default rate (as the Congressional Budget office has estimated) and an unrealistically low construction cost of US$2.5 billion. EPACT also authorizes US$2 billion in â€œstandby support,â€ also called â€œrisk insurance,â€ which pays the industry for delays in construction and operation licensing for six reactors due to the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) or to litigation. No other source of energy enjoys this magnitude of risk transfer to US taxpayers.
The Price-Anderson Act, which was originally enacted in 1957 as a temporary 10-year measure to support the fledgling nuclear industry, limits the amount of primary insurance that nuclear operators must carry and caps the total liability of nuclear operators in the event of a serious accident or attack. EPACT reauthorized the Price-Anderson Act for 20 years. The capâ€” US$10.8 billionâ€”falls far short of plausible nuclear accident damages. According to a study by Sandia National Laboratory, a serious nuclear accident could cost more than US$600 billion in 2004 dollars, and taxpayers would be responsible for covering the vast majority of that sum. Price-Anderson could easily bust the federal budget or, as we have seen in the aftermath of Katrina, leave victims unaided.
EPACT also authorizes funding for DOEâ€™s (Department of Energy) Nuclear Power 2010 program, a government/industry cost-share program to license new reactors that will cost taxpayers US$1.1 billion. In comparison, the total fiscal year 2006 budget for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the premier renewable research laboratory in the United States, was only US$209.6 million. As a result of the energy billâ€™s passage, at least 16 consortia and individual utilities have indicated that they intend to apply for licenses to build as many as 33 new reactors, most of which are slated for the impoverished southeastern states and in Texas.
But even with all of the subsidies in EPACT and the resulting utility interest, credit rating agencies have expressed doubt that nuclear power is economically viable. The credit rating agency Standard & Poorâ€™s concluded in a January 9, 2006 report that â€œfrom a credit perspective, these legislative measures may not be substantial enough to sustain credit quality and make this a practical strategy.â€ In other words, the credit rating of a utility that commits to building a new reactor could be downgraded, thereby making it harder for the utility to borrow money at a manageable rate. In response to these dismal economic indicators, utilities have gone to state and local governments for additional subsidies and tax breaks.
Nuclear Power Creates Long-Lasting Radioactive Waste
addition to being uneconomical, nuclear power also produces nuclear
waste that remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. After
half a century of commercial nuclear power, no country in the world has
solved its nuclear waste problem. The US government is currently
pursuing three non-solutions: Yucca Mountain, reprocessing, and interim
Although the United States has spent about US$9
billion dollars and more than 20 years studying Yucca Mountain,
research has shown that the site is not suitable for safely storing the
radioactive waste for the hundreds of thousands of years that it will
remain dangerous. A US Senate Committee report argues that Yucca Mountain is â€œthe most studied real estate on the planetâ€; this claim is a non sequitur.
Yucca Mountain is located in an active earthquake zone near volcanos,
in porous soil, and atop an aquifer used for drinking water and
irrigation. Moreover, DOEâ€™s flawed scientific and quality assurance
practices have cast serious doubt on the validity of its work performed
at the site.
DOE has yet to even submit a license
application to the NRC. In July, DOE announced that it will submit its
application in June 2008 and will start accepting waste in 2020. This
estimate is highly optimistic because it does not factor in delays due
to funding limitations or litigation and ignores the scientific
problems with the site. Nor does DOE have a current estimate of how
much the project will cost. As the New York Times reports, Energy
Secretary Samuel Bodman commented in February 2006 that DOE â€œmay never
have an accurate prediction of the cost.â€
The capacity of
the Yucca Mountain repository is legally capped at 77,000 metric tons.
Even if licensed, the repository cannot hold all the waste that US
nuclear reactors will generate in their licensed lifetimes. The DOE
predicts that currently operating commercial reactors alone will
generate more than 105,000 metric tons of waste. Once Yucca Mountain is
full, DOE has estimated that there will be approximately 42,000 metric
tons of commercial irradiated fuel at 63 sites in 31 states. Extending
the operating lifetimes of existing reactors and constructing new ones
would result in even more waste in excess of the repositoryâ€™s capacity.
Several legislative proposals to â€œfix Yuccaâ€ have been introduced that
would, among other things, pop this cap. None, however, address the
fundamental problems of the program or the site.
February 2006, the Bush Administration proposed a new program, called
the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, to restart reprocessing of
nuclear waste in the United States. The program was presented to
Congress largely as a research and development program to develop
â€œadvanced recycling technologiesâ€ and thereby postpone the need to
license additional geologic repositories for the nationâ€™s high-level
waste until the next century. DOE is now proposing to skip the
demonstration facilities using â€œadvancedâ€ technologies, and go straight
to building commercial-scale facilities. The key components of a
reprocessing and reuse program include reprocessing plants, fuel
fabrication facilities, and fast reactors, none of which have proven to
be commercially successful technologies in the United States or abroad.
US and international experience clearly shows that
reprocessing is not going to solve our nationâ€™s radioactive waste
problem. Reprocessing is expensive and polluting, and poses a serious
risk to the global non-proliferation regime. More than US$100 billion has been spent
globally trying to commercialize plutonium. The results have been
failed technologies, contaminated land and water, and 250 metric tons
of separated plutoniumâ€”equivalent to more than 30,000 nuclear
bombsâ€”that remain vulnerable to theft.
Without a permanent
repository available in the near-term, attention has turned to dry cask
interim storage of spent fuel. Interim storage away from reactor sites
will not even temporarily relieve the waste problem, because it would
not meaningfully reduce the number of locations where high-level
radioactive waste is stored and would unnecessarily increase transport
risks to the public. With no additional repositories on the horizon,
these sites would become long-term storage for high-level radioactive
In addition to the waste at the back end of the
fuel cycle, the front end requires the mining, milling, and enrichment
of uranium for fuel. These processes cause environmental contamination,
health impacts, and security threats. For example, uranium milling
results in large piles of tailings that are contaminated with radon and
are often abandoned aboveground. Twelve million tons of tailings, for
instance, are piled along the Colorado River in Utah, threatening
communities downstream. Native American communities have been particularly devastated
by illnesses that result from uranium mining. The enrichment process
also results in large amounts of waste, particularly depleted uranium
that should be disposed of in a geologic repository. Moreover, enriched
uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons and the spread of this
technology remains a global concern, as evidenced by United Nations
efforts to prevent Iran from operating its enrichment facility.
Nuclear Power Poses Security and Safety Threats
reactors that industry is proposing to build are called Generation 3.5,
which are considered â€œfirst of a kindâ€ because they have never been
built and tested. They are not so dramatically different from existing reactors ,
however, that the nuclear industry would be willing to build them
without Price-Anderson limited liability in the case of an accident or
More than five years after 9/11, no nuclear
plants are required to be protected against an air attack. The
Committee to Bridge the Gap, a California-based organization,
petitioned the NRC to require the construction of shields consisting of
I-beams and cabling, called Beamhenge, around reactors and fuel pools
that would protect them in the event of an aircraft crash. Seven
Attorneys General supported the petition. Yet the NRC has rejected this
sensible and relatively inexpensive proposal for existing reactors.
Instead, the NRC relies on â€œmitigationâ€ factors (measures taken once
the attack has occurred) and on evacuation of the public. Thus far, the
NRC has not required security design improvements for new reactor
designs that it has licensed or is in the process of licensing, even
though a nuclear industry panel made recommendations in 1980 for
feasible design improvements that would reduce the risk of air attack.
Spent fuel pools are the most vulnerable part of a reactor. At some
sites, these pools are covered only by a corrugated metal shed. At
one-third of US reactor sites, the spent fuel pool is located above the reactor outside
the primary containment structure. Meanwhile, spent fuel pools have
been densely packed. If water is lost from these pools, there could be
insufficient ambient air to prevent a fire that would release large
quantities of radioactivity. Utilities are moving some of the spent
fuel into onsite dry cask storage, essentially big containers on
concrete pads. These casks are not designed to resist a terrorist
attack. Nor has the NRC analyzed the environmental impacts of a
terrorist attack for any of the 42 sites for which it has granted dry
cask storage licenses.
In addition to the security
threats posed by nuclear reactors, safety failures continue to be
discovered at operating nuclear plants. These failures include aging
equipment, management that ignores safety concerns raised by workers,
under-trained and overworked security guards, poor emergency planning,
lack of NRC oversight, and weakening of safety standards by the NRC.
For example, Davis-Besse, a relatively young nuclear reactor near
Toledo, Ohio, developed a hole in its reactor vessel head, caused by a
boric acid leak. Only a 3/8-inch metal cladding was left as protection
against a reactor breach. The NRC had specific knowledge of the type of
problem that caused the leaks at Davis-Besse more than a year before
they were actually discovered in March 2002.
Harris in North Carolina, the NRC has allowed the plant to operate for
14 years while in violation of federal fire safety regulations. The
three Palo Verde nuclear plants, which together have the largest
nuclear generation capacity in the country, have also had serious
ongoing and uncorrected safety problems for over a decade. For example,
the owner unilaterally changed safety procedures at the site, resulting
in an increased probability over a 12 year period that emergency pumps
would not work in an accident. More recently, NRC found
that workers added excessive amounts of chemicals to the cooling water
over the past decade and ignored the resultant clogging of essential
safety equipment. The NRC has described the decay of â€œkey safety
systemsâ€ at the plant as â€œegregious.â€
contamination of groundwater is also an ongoing problem. Tritium from
nuclear reactors has leaked into groundwater at more than 10 reactor
sitesâ€”at least one leak goes as far back as 1997. At Indian Point in
New York, tritium and strontium are leaking from the
have migrated into the Hudson River. Yet the NRC denied a request by
nearly a dozen public interest groups for mandatory reporting on
radioactively contaminated water at other sites, and instead has agreed
to voluntary reporting by utilities. As of September 12, more than 26
reactors have failed to report to the NRC.
also poses safety problems for nuclear reactors. During recent heat
waves in Europe and the United States, reactors have had to reduce
output and some have even been shut down because cooling water in
nearby rivers or lakes becomes too hot. As climate change worsens, it
is expected that heat waves will become more severe and frequent.
Renewables Can Meet Our Energy Needs
including hydroelectric power, renewable energy currently provides only
2.3 percent of electricity in the United States. According to a draft
analysis by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, it is
technically feasible for a diverse mix of existing renewable
technologiesâ€”including wind, solar, advanced hydroelectric power, and
geothermal heat pumpsâ€”to completely meet our electricity needs by 2020.
As much as 20 percent of US electricity could immediately come from
non-hydro renewable energy sources without any negative effects on the
stability or reliability of the electrical grid. Despite the vast
discrepancy in federal support, wind power, which costs between 4.2 and
6 cents per kilowatt-hour, is already competitive with new nuclear
power plants. Over the long term, improvements to the grid can be made,
and renewable technologies could supply increasingly higher percentages
of our power. Renewable energy and efficiency are viable solutions for
climate change, air quality, and energy independence. We cannot afford
to waste our time and limited resources on building even a few new
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