Nuclear Power Still Doesn't Make Any Sense

Posted: Mar. 18, 2009
The nuclear power industry, virtually dormant for decades, is hoping that concerns about global warming will bring its resurgence.
Wisconsin, which has not built a new nuclear reactor since 1974, got a taste of the well-orchestrated pro-nuclear campaign last week at a legislative hearing stacked with nuclear power apologists, including two former critics of nuclear power who now support it as part of a solution to the converging challenges of climate change and energy shortages.
Times have changed, the converts say. One of them, Patrick Moore, who also wrote the March 12 op-ed "Put nuclear energy to work," assured legislators that nuclear power was "one of the safest technologies that has ever been invented by human beings." (Moore is paid by the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, funded by the nuclear industry.)
But some things have not changed since Wisconsin lawmakers wisely adopted a state law in 1983 that forbids any new plants to be built in the state until two requirements are met: 1) There is a federally licensed facility to dispose of high-level radioactive waste from the reactors, and 2) The Public Service Commission makes a finding that nuclear power makes economic sense. The industry's inability to meet those two tests has resulted in a de facto moratorium on new nuclear reactors in Wisconsin, for which we should be thankful.
After more than 50 years of producing the extremely dangerous waste, there is still no safe way to permanently dispose of it. Some of the waste byproducts of generating nuclear power are so dangerous to human health and the environment that the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules last September requiring a disposal site be able to protect the public from radiation released from the waste for up to 1 million years.
A million years. To put that in perspective, 15,000 years ago, Wisconsin was covered by glaciers.
We have no safe way to dispose of the waste, but three commercial reactors in Wisconsin generate more of it every day. It is accumulating, as it has been for three decades, in temporary storage facilities next to the operating reactors, near Lake Michigan, and next to the Mississippi River at a reactor shut down 20 years ago. To build more reactors to produce more dangerous waste while we have no safe means of disposal is lunacy.
Opening Wisconsin to more nuclear plants could have another dangerous side effect: increasing pressure to select our state as the repository for the nation's radioactive waste. In the 1980s, the federal government identified two granite formations in central and northern Wisconsin as potential sites. Wisconsin voters overwhelmingly opposed such a site in a 1983 advisory referendum. If Yucca Mountain does not survive as a federal site, Wisconsin could be targeted again.
Nuclear power has never made economic sense. No new nuclear plants are being built because the economic risks are too high. The most recent evidence was an unsuccessful attempt by nuclear power supporters to include $50 billion in loan guarantees in the federal stimulus bill.
Wisconsin is about to experience a full-scale debate on the subject. The Governor's Task Force on Global Warming has issued recommendations that include easing the restrictions on nuclear power, as part of a package of other changes sought by environmentalists. The skids seem greased for passage, and a major, well-funded sales campaign is being prepared.
Nuclear power makes no more sense today than it did when the law was passed in 1983. Wisconsin must address the climate crisis, but renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies are faster, cheaper, safer and cleaner strategies for reducing greenhouse emissions than nuclear power.
Bill Christofferson of Milwaukee is co-chair of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, a statewide coalition of 165 organizations working for social change.