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Politics and Passions - Winter 1995-96

Part 26
Nuclear Power is a Disaster

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory estimate that if the U.S. became as energy efficient as Japan, the U.S. would save $220 billion per year on its energy bill. Nuclear power has proven to be a disaster: 116 plants have been cancelled in the United States since 1973 and no new plants ordered since 1978. This has been an economic waste of more than $50 billion.

Nuclear power suffers from uncontrollable expenses from construction, operation, maintenance and radioactive waste management. The nuclear waste that comes from nuclear power generation is deadly, and it contains isotopes that remain toxic for up to 220,000 years. There is no safe way to dispose of it.

In June 1989, the citizens of Sacramento voted to shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear plant after 15 years of operation. The plant may be converted to solar power. The Shoreham nuclear plant in New York will never operate due to public opposition -- the nuclear industry ignored the public outcry, and it now costs the taxpayers and the industry $6 billion.

The nuclear power industry is an industry plagued with safety hazards, routine radiation releases, mismanagement, cost overruns, increased maintenance costs, extended outages and a dependence on federal subsidies. Forbes magazine has called the failed nuclear power program "the largest managerial disaster in U.S. business history," costing as much as the space program and the Vietnam War combined.

According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, moving from fossil fuel to nuclear power on a global level would require building a new reactor every one to three days for the next 40 years, at a cost of $200 billion per year. This would result in 300,000 tons of radioactive waste in the United States alone.

More reasonable alternatives exist. Solar energy, for example, is abundant, non-polluting and dependable. Electricity-producing wind turbines exist in 95 countries, with an installed capacity of 1,450 megawatts. They can be installed alone or in clusters. A coal or nuclear plant can take a decade or more to plan or construct, whereas wind turbine clusters have been built in under 90 days. New wind systems generate power at six to nine cents per kilowatt-hour, while electricity from new nuclear power plants costs 13 cents per hour.

According to United Nations energy statistics, hydroelectric power supplies 21 percent of the world's electricity -- more than nuclear power. Hydropower provides the most efficient, most reliable and the lowest cost source of electricity, with production costs generally one-tenth those of nuclear power. Geothermal energy projects cost less than half the cost of nuclear reactors, and can be built in one-fifth the time.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, nuclear power has become the least competitive of conventional electricity sources. Costs of $2 to $3 billion per plant are now commonplace, with some plants costing upwards of $5 billion. In contrast, while the price of electricity generated by solar energy is not yet as low as that from coal-fired plants, some technologies are already cheaper than nuclear-generated electricity.

The average output of nuclear plants is only about 60 percent of designed capacity, because many plants are forced to shut down frequently for repairs and maintenance. In the 1980s, the time required for construction of a nuclear reactor typically ranged from eight to 14 years. The real roots of this problem lie in faulty and incomplete design work, inadequate quality control during construction and poor management.

General safety issues plague the nuclear power industry. These include the capability of safety control systems to survive fires, earthquakes or hydrogen explosions; the capability of reactor systems to respond to an emergency shutdown command; and the capability of a plant to withstand the loss of power needed to operate safety systems.

A typical nuclear power plant generates more than 30 metric tons of highly radioactive material, which remains hazardous to humans for thousands of years. There is no easy solution to the disposal of nuclear waste.

According to Greenpeace, a 1989 Lou Harris poll found 62 percent of U.S. citizens strongly opposed to nuclear power. Like the environmental movement, the antinuclear movement has grown in past decades from a radical fringe element into a mainstream public concern. Questions to ask proponents of nuclear power are as follows:

(1) How will the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) define safety standards for new reactors?

(2) Will the quality of construction be better than in the past?

(3) Where and how will additional nuclear wastes generated by new plants be disposed of?

(4) Will the nuclear industry be more willing to accept stringent regulation and enforcement than it has been in the past?

Until these questions are answered satisfactorily, nuclear power remains a risky solution to the energy crisis. Making use of more energy-efficient systems, conserving energy, recycling and becoming more energy and environmentally conscious, however, are steps we can all take towards a more livable world.

Go on to: Part 27: Prostitution as a Privacy Right
Return to: The Next Distraction

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