Nuclear Power: The Negatives

October 14, 2008
By Hugh Haskell
CARY - Proponents of nuclear power speak of a "nuclear renaissance." The facts show that rather than a renaissance, we face a nuclear apocalypse, heralded by, instead of the traditional four horsemen, five horsemen: cost, proliferation, risk, waste, and water consumption. Consider them individually:
COST. In spite of early claims that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter," nuclear power started out expensive, requiring large subsidies and loan guarantees from the government, and it has stayed that way. A preliminary estimate for two new 1,000 megawatt nuclear plants proposed by Progress Energy in Florida is $17 billion, and that cost is likely to grow as required revisions to Westinghouse's AP-1000 advanced reactor design add years to the time before those reactors will be ready for use.
An industry estimate puts the cost of new nuclear power at 14c per kilowatt-hour, and rising -- higher than all other sources of energy except solar, whose cost is falling.
Potential financiers of nuclear power remain leery -- cost and potential safety problems make the risks of new nuclear power too high.
PROLIFERATION. Nuclear proliferation is a serious problem worldwide. Israel, India, South Africa and North Korea all created nuclear weapons by clandestine diversion of fissile material from their reactor programs, and Iran appears to be doing the same. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, sponsored by the Department of Energy, which emphasizes reprocessing of nuclear fuel for use by cooperating nations, is also a potential enabler of covert diversion of plutonium to a weapons program.
RISK. Unlike other sources of energy, with nuclear power we risk catastrophic consequences from a serious accident. Although the likelihood of an accident is low, it multiplies with the addition of new plants. Our existing fleet of reactors is nearing its design lifetime, when the possibility of failures starts to increase; the new design reactors are untested and possible failure modes largely unknown.
The confluence of those two factors should give everyone reason for concern. Moreover, the industry has been plagued with safety violations and accidents of varying degrees of severity. NC WARN has repeatedly documented problems in the management and operation of the Shearon Harris plant, where Progress Energy is considering building two new reactors.
WASTE. Nuclear generation is the only source of electric power that creates seriously dangerous waste for which no acceptable means of disposal yet exists. Long-term storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is mired in bureaucratic, political, cost and scientific quagmires, and its opening, if ever, is now 2020 or later, by which time there will be enough waste stored at reactor sites around the country to fill it, even if we build no new reactors.
Geologists have raised legitimate concerns about the feasibility of Yucca Mountain to protect the material stored there for the requisite thousands of years. DOE admits that it must create "engineered" barriers within the storage area to prevent leakage into local ground water -- the natural barriers assumed to exist when Yucca Mountain was chosen have been shown to be inadequate. Meanwhile waste has nowhere to go and piles up at reactors, becoming an increasingly attractive target for terrorists.
WATER. Keeping the reactor cool and condensing the steam from the generating turbines demand a large and reliable supply of water -- upwards of 20 million gallons of water is evaporated into the atmosphere daily from a typical nuclear plant with a closed-cycle cooling system. According to Progress Energy, operating the two proposed reactors at Shearon-Harris would require raising the level of Harris Lake by 20 feet (thereby intercepting runoff that would otherwise go to the Cape Fear River) to provide sufficient cooling water. Replacing the water evaporated in the cooling process will require withdrawing up to 87 million gallons per day from the Cape Fear River itself.
During times of water scarcity, reactors may have to be shut down for safety reasons, as happened at the Browns Ferry reactor in Alabama during the 2007 drought. In addition, cooling water discharged into a river or the ocean re-enters the stream at a higher temperature which can have detrimental effects on downstream marine life.
One must wonder how a problematic and expensive technology, whose increased capacity will not be effective for at least 10 years, can help us meet a crisis whose solution must begin today, when existing clean and safe technologies that can be providing increasing capacity during the next 10 years await only a nod of approval from the energy companies that can make it happen.
(Hugh Haskell lives in Cary. A physicist, he is senior science fellow at the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md.)