In last week’s Guest Shot the director of the Idaho National Lab (INL) Mark Peters wrote to open a dialogue with News&Guide readers about nuclear energy. I want to take him up on his offer.
First, what we agree on. Nuclear energy produces about 20% of the nation’s electricity, which is about 8% of our total energy use. Overall, we need to produce and use energy that minimizes greenhouse gases.
Looking at the troubled history, poor economics, attendant risk and unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal, I think there are much better alternatives for producing carbon free energy.
Today, there are 97 nuclear reactors in 29 states that produce electricity. Thirty-four reactors have been shut down. More orders for nuclear plants have been canceled than plants have been built. Only one plant has come online in the last 25 years. Early claims that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter” proved false. Despite extensive public subsidies, nuclear plants across America have faced significant cost overruns.
For example, the Washington Public Power Supply System defaulted on $2.25 billion in municipal bonds when cost overruns on two units caused the cancellation of two other units. The Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on Long Island was completed in 1985, but never operated when an evacuation plan could not be implemented. The plant was decommissioned. The $6 billion cost of the unused plant was passed on to Long Island residents.
Attempts to build new nuclear plants have been even more challenging. During the 1980s, the cost of Plant Vogtle’s first two nuclear units near Augusta, Georgia, jumped from an estimated $660 million to $8.87 billion.
Regardless, 20 years later Georgia Power wanted to build the “next generation” of nuclear power plants. In August 2008, it was estimated that Plant Vogtle reactors 3 and 4 would cost $14.3 billion and begin operations in 2017.
Today, updated estimates put the cost at $28 billion with an operation date of November 2022. The project is projected to be $14 billion over budget and more than 5 years behind schedule. The builder of the reactors, Westinghouse, has declared bankruptcy. In 2017, a similar two-unit plant in South Carolina, the V.C. Summer plant, was abandoned — costing about $5 billion.
Concerns over the transportation and storage of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel have prevented any nuclear waste repositories from being developed in the U.S. Spent fuel rods are stored onsite at nuclear plants. When uranium fuel is used up, usually after about 18 months, the spent rods are generally moved to deep pools of circulating water to cool down for about 10 years. The radioactive material is then transferred to metal casks. The waste remains dangerously radioactive for about 10,000 years. There is no plan for permanent disposal of this waste.
This brings me to my biggest concern — the fact that those in our society whose business it is to determine risk will not insure nuclear power.
If you own a home, look at your homeowner’s insurance policy. You are not covered in the event of a nuclear accident. No one is. The nuclear industry exists only due to the liability limitations granted by Congress in the Price Anderson Act. Price Anderson requires the nuclear industry to fund an account of $12.6 billion. Any liability above that is supposed to be covered by taxpayers.
Then there are the issues of long-term decommissioning costs, nuclear accidents or terrorists. In Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear accidents have left large areas uninhabitable. What if the 9/11 terrorists had managed to crash those planes into the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant north of New York City? While the reactor containment vessel might have survived the impact, the spent fuel rod pools may not have, leaving much of the New York metropolitan area uninhabitable.
Nuclear energy has not worked out as planned. Far more carbon-free power can be generated at far less cost and risk by renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.