Paul Hansen

Paul Hansen

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.

Paul W. Hansen’s column appears twice per month. Columns are solely the opinion of their authors. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

(2) comments

Avery Schwab

This article really couldn't get much worse. First of all, Shoreham is terrible example for trying to show cost over runs. That plant was built well and would have had a great operating life and most likely would still be operating today. The only reason that plant didn't go online was because of anti-nuclear people who would not sign a perfectly good evacuation plan. There were no issues with the plan. In all reality it didn't matter how good the plan was, it still would not have been signed. An insane mistake that costs the taxpayers billions and cost public lives due to air pollution, as that plant was replaced by coal. Second, knowing how a nuclear plant works and is laid out is crucial to making these arguments. So making an outlandish remark about 9/11 is distasteful. If a plane would have hit Indian point the containment building and pressure vessel would protect the reactor and the spent fuel pool would have been fine. There has never been a single death caused by spent fuel, so using it as a scare tactic is tacky. Now last of all, you mention a lot of negatives in your opening statements " attendant risk and unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal". Yet you fail to support those claims. The most important thing is you fail to list or explain your statement " I think there are much better alternatives for producing carbon free energy.". In all reality there isn't any better solutions. Germany and California have tried to go 100% renewable yet only achieved a stagnant carbon emission and the highest power prices around. Nuclear power has proved that it can be dispatched fast enough and be reliable enough to truly decarbonize a society, France and Sweden are great examples of that. I sure hope you take this criticism the right way and truly learn to understand how great nuclear power really is.

Jay Westemeier

I agree with Mr. Schwab. It's a terrible disservice to our country to abandon nuclear energy which has proven to be a reliable and cleaner power source for years. Paranoia and pipe dreams of more reliable and more environmentally friendly energy production should not be allowed to shutter the technological advances in nuclear energy that have been realized over the last 15 years. Claims that there are much better alternatives for carbon free energy are unsubstantiated. The only REAL alternatives are wind and solar which have a multitude of negatives associated with their technologies at this time. Relying on our ever changing and unreliable weather for all of our country's energy needs would put our national security and economy at far greater risk than nuclear energy at this time.

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