Nuclear Age Coming Back?
Michael Welch ©2001 Michael Welch
What is the future of nuclear power? Five to ten years ago, most folks would have said that it was dying, and nearly extinct. But the powerful corporations that make up that industry think things are starting to look up.
Energy activists have been fairly pleased with the way things have been going for a nuclear-free future. Several older nuke plants were decommissioned. Partially built plants were abandoned in place after billions of dollars had been spent. The industry's troubled answer to nuclear waste, Yucca Mountain, Nevada, seemed like it would never be allowed to open. The public fear of accidents was heightened, and some utilities put their nuke plants up for auction.
It appeared that the nuke industry had all but given up on the U.S. No new domestic plants had been ordered in over twenty-five years. Utilities and local regulators were actually starting to have dialogues with energy and other environmental activists in their communities, rather than resorting to stonewalling—the industry-wide practice for so, so long. The nuclear industry cut back on its public relations campaigns, fearing backlash from the resoundingly anti-nuclear public.
But really, the nuclear industry has never given up hope. The industry has been quietly working behind the scenes the whole time. They have increased the number and size of interim high-level nuclear waste storage systems. They have received approvals for generic reactor designs, and continue to push hard for Yucca Mountain as the long-term waste solution. And they have managed to lessen the amount of input the public will have in future regulatory processes for nuclear power plants.
Some nuclear companies have been quietly buying up nuclear power plants from utilities that no longer want to own or manage them. Nuke plants are being purchased at a fraction of what they cost to build. AmerGen, Entergy, and Exelon are all companies that are operating nuclear power plants originally built and managed by local utilities.
One scary thing about these new owners is that, unlike utilities, some of these companies have very few assets. If something goes wrong, who's left to pay to fix the problems? And problems at nuke plants can be extensive and costly. Also, some are not in a public utility commission regulated power supplying business. They are in the business strictly to make a profit. Many people fear that they will operate the plants even when maintenance or safety factors would advise differently.
There have been proposals to restart construction on the ill-fated "Whoops" (WPPS) economic disasters in Washington state. Rumor has it that someone is looking into once more running the failed Trojan nuke plant in northern Oregon (currently moving toward decommissioning). And the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which is the nuclear industry's pep team, recently told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that four utilities would be seeking pre-approval for new reactor sites.
One company, Exelon, met with the NRC, and announced that they want to build seven new reactors in the U.S. and one in South Africa. Exelon has high hopes. They believe that their reactors don't need containment buildings, and that they should have special dispensations that will make construction cheaper and more timely. Let's hope that the NRC will not agree to Exelon's request to streamline the process.
Until recently, the industry has been pinning its hopes on selling plants to other countries. Nuclear power is a perfect political-economic match for the leaders of these countries. Third world nations' citizens see what is going on in opulent North America and Western Europe. The people want what we have—the riches, the freedoms, the cars, the TVs, the rampant consumerism—and their leaders know it. The leaders also understand that in order to industrialize their nations, they need as much electric power as they can get.
Nuclear reactors look good for this purpose. A country can work out a single energy deal, and end up with 500 to 2,000 megawatts (million watts) of power. Of course, they still have to deal with stringing distribution lines all over the countryside, but most of those additional project costs can be taken care of with the same financing that buys the nuke plant. They also need to figure out how to deal with their nuclear waste. The U.S. Department of Energy and its nuke industry puppeteers have the answer to this: "Just send it to us, and we will take care of it."
Funding is the key to greasing the path to third-world nukes. The amounts of money involved are so huge that things just kind of move forward as each participant gets a share of the pot. The leaders get wealthier. Local industrialists both contribute funds to start the process, and will eventually be the beneficiaries of the process. And the nuclear industry stands to make enough money that they can buy the political clout necessary to get countries development loans and grants, and even finance the projects privately.
But even with all that money flying around, many third world countries are hesitant. They look at the United States and think, "Hey, how come your country is not building these plants?" It makes them step back and wonder. That is the number one reason that the nuclear industry wants to build at least one domestic nuclear power plant of U.S. design.
Then they will have an example to hold up to foreign countries, and maybe more countries will go for it. Ironically, many folks watching the industry feel that just the opposite should happen: that companies will be able to re-enter the U.S. market only by building and proving their reactor designs elsewhere. Sounds like a bit of a Catch-22.
But in June of 2000, everything changed. That was the month that California's "energy crisis" hit. We've heard a lot about how energy providers want to get their fossil fuel powered plant construction "fast-tracked." We've heard a lot about the utilities being bailed out by the state. We've heard a lot about the obscene excess profits of some power suppliers. And we've heard a lot about the rolling blackouts that occur when consumption outstrips supply.
It's now a well-recognized fact that this is a crisis of overconsumption, not under-supply. In spite of this, there has been a huge outcry by powerful entities that more power plants must be built. The nuclear industry is taking full advantage of this, and so is the fossil fuel industry. They have stepped up their public relations campaigns, and are hoping that the public memory of past transgressions has faded. And now that they have a new guy in the White House who is the champion of corporate energy, things are likely to get even easier.
Is Nuclear Energy the Answer?
Many folks think that until we can get renewables online at a level necessary to make a difference, we will need to rely on building more coal and nuclear plants. But yuck, coal is so nasty dirty. And will more quickly-built nukes really help?
Probably not. Nukes could become even more prone to safety problems if construction is rushed. And even if construction is not rushed, they are still too unreliable to help in a crunch. They have to be taken offline for routine maintenance and refueling on a regular basis, and refueling can take several weeks.
Well, refueling can be planned for. But unplanned events contributed significantly to the California "energy crisis." During the peak of a storm that increased demand for electricity last January, high winds choked the Diablo Canyon nuke plant's water intakes with kelp. The plant was forced to run at 20 percent of its 2,000 megawatt capacity to avoid a meltdown.
And just last week, Redwood Alliance and its neighbors were hit by a rolling blackout for nearly two hours. I felt like I was just doing my share for the good of the state until I found out that the outage was caused by a fire at the San Onofre nuclear power plant. It was estimated that the state was short by around 800 megawatts, and the plant provides 1,120 megawatts at full power.
The utility claims that there was no release of radioactive materials. Thank goodness, but that does not help the energy problem in California. Now the plant will be out of commission for about three months for repairs. This is more proof that nukes are not a reliable option for helping our nation's energy crises.
I don't want to give the impression that this is all doom and gloom, and that we are certain to end up with more U.S. nuke plants. It is a serious situation. Nuclear power corporations have always hoped for a comeback, and this may be their best chance.
But there are some powerful and active folks out there who have been on top of what is going on in the nuclear industry. If we all remain vigilant and keep up the publicity about the realities of nuclear power, we may not have to put up with more nuke plants. Please support your local and national anti-nuke organizations. They are making the difference.
So what is the answer? If our so-called "leaders" had the political guts, it would be solar and wind. Nuclear power costs about US$2.50 per watt to construct plants. If we were to install a centralized 2,000 megawatt array of single-crystalline photovoltaic
Power Politics modules and intertie equipment, we could do it for about the same cost as a nuclear power plant of the same output.
Of course, solar works only during the day and best at peak sun, but fortunately, that is also when the grid needs it the most. And there would be no fuel costs and fewer maintenance costs.
For another 50 cents to a dollar per watt, we could spread these 2,000 megawatts of photovoltaics across a million rooftops of southern and central California. This would make it easier on the long distance transmission lines that eat up so much of our energy. Finally, we would have a million solar roofs.
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