Nuclear Power Wrong for the Future

Posted March 2, 2007 at 12:22pm

Nuclear power is doomed by the enormous long-term cost to taxpayers and rate payers of the siting, securing and storing of radioactive waste for thousands of years. Emerging operational safety issues will put nuclear power back in the spotlight in a way that will cause public reappraisal of the wisdom of continuing to build new plants. It is likely that nuclear power is past its prime and will begin a long-term phaseout in favor of less expensive, more environmentally friendly, alternative-power sources, such as wind and solar energy.

All across our nation, highly radioactive waste sits in vulnerable pools next to the reactors that created it. This highly radioactive waste will remain dangerous for more than a million years. There is no solution. Storing radioactive waste on site is dangerous. Moving it along highways and rail through populated areas is even more dangerous. The industry that 50 years ago promised power too cheap to meter has created an energy source with Enron-type accounting, where the liabilities of nuclear waste have been largely taken off the books with the burdens shifted to future generations of taxpayers and rate payers.

The sheer expense of generating nuclear power caused its initial decline. Construction costs were greatly underestimated. Utility stocks dropped from generating plants that were neither used nor useful. The nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants has been operating well past the time when they should have been mothballed. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s oversight has been abysmal.

Davis-Besse, a nuclear reactor just west of my hometown of Cleveland, was shut down five years ago because a large cavity the size of a football was discovered in the top of the reactor. The neglect and lax regulation oversight allowed all but three-sixteenths of an inch of a reactor shell to crumble. Only a thin stainless steel liner stood in the way of a meltdown. Such a failure would have rivaled the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.

The utility, FirstEnergy, knowingly avoided mandatory inspection and cleanings, which would have prevented this near-catastrophe. Instead, FirstEnergy chose to protect its profits and run the reactor dangerously close to a disaster. And the NRC, the agency charged with protecting the public, instead chose to protect the financial interests of FirstEnergy. The NRC inspector general found that the commission chose to protect the “financial impact” on FirstEnergy rather than force compliance with safety regulations.

Reactor containment vessels throughout the industry must be checked and rechecked for embrittlement. Aging plants are more prone to equipment failures. Most recently, attention has been focused on the Indian Point Energy Center near New York City, with Members of Congress calling for the NRC to conduct an independent safety assessment of the plant. The truth is that such an assessment should be made of all 103 nuclear reactors in the United States. As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on domestic policy, I am pledged to full hearings on nuclear safety.

The initial cost estimates for today’s fleet of reactors was off by more than 200 percent, a $100 billion cost overrun (in 1990 dollars). Those costs were shouldered by captive rate payers. While the deregulated environment implies that more risk will be on the utilities and shareholders, it will be interesting to see how long investors will tolerate 200 percent cost overruns.

Standard & Poor’s stated that “given that construction of [new nuclear power plants] would entail using new designs and technology, cost overruns are highly probable.” Since corporate America cares foremost about the stock price of any company, utilities will be hard-pressed to take the risky plunge of buying a highly expensive, untested nuclear reactor with all its potential for cost overruns and likely demands for storage costs to be shifted back to the energy companies who created the nuclear waste. When the industry comes to Congress asking for the American taxpayer to subsidize its cost underestimates, we shouldn’t tolerate that either. Taxpayers have a long history of subsidizing nuclear power, a major distortion of the free market.

In light of its costs and the environmental threat posed by long-term storage of nuclear waste, nuclear power does not have a plausible role in a solution to reduce greenhouse gases. But losing the battle of science, public opinion and economics has not stopped the nuclear power industry from one last-ditch effort. The industry whose byproduct threatens the environment is now presenting itself as the savior of the environment.

New reactors will not offset significant greenhouse gas emissions. Our dependence on oil, for example, powers our dependence on gasoline and diesel for transportation; this cannot be replaced by nuclear power plants. And the days of large centralized power plants in any form are waning. Transmission systems are expensive and proving unnecessary as smaller decentralized power plants are becoming mainstream.

The billions of dollars the United States would waste on nuclear power plant construction could instead be redirected to a sustainable energy economy that relies on renewable energy technologies and energy-efficiency. Since most of these technologies are already more cost-effective than a new nuclear power plant, the impact would be magnified. An oil-free economy has been calculated to save the economy $70 billion a year. Compare that with the costs on the economy from nuclear reactors including, but not limited to, public subsidies, rate increases, waste disposal and the economic costs of a nuclear accident. Instead of saving $70 billion a year, our economy would lose billions of dollars a year.

Congress should avoid repeating the nuclear power debacle. Our nation will be paying for the first wave of nuclear power for generations to come. We cannot afford to sacrifice more of our future to prop up the nuclear industry.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on domestic policy.