Nuclear Waste

Some lawmakers want 100 new nuclear power plants for America. Here's why that's a bad use of your tax dollars.

"It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter." So said Lewis Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Back in 1954. Needless to say, that vision of a nuclear-powered future hasn't come to pass. Turned off by exorbitant capital costs and paralyzed by the Three Mile Island scare, utilities cooled to nuclear pretty quickly.But there's been something of a "nuclear renaissance" of late (at least in debate-the last plant to come online did so over a generation ago). With all the calls for greater supplies of carbon-free electricity, and as Americans demand energy independence, many are again holding up nuclear power as the way forward: clean, safe, too cheap to meter.Republicans across the board have turned into unlikely Francophiles, pointing to that nation's use of atomic fusion fission. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has lately held the bullhorn for his party's call to build 100 new nuclear power plants over the next 20 years, calling it "the cheap clean energy solution." And it now seems that if the Senate stands any chance of passing a climate and energy bill in line with that which just emerged from the House, nuclear will be a big part of it.President Obama has been compelled to play along, sending his top brass into the Upper Chamber to offer support for nuclear provisions in the bill with hopes of swinging a few fencesitters. "Quite frankly, we want to recapture the lead on industrial nuclear power," Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Senate's environment and public works committee. "I think nuclear power is going to be a very important factor in getting us to a low carbon future."If you're expecting a knee-jerk environmentalist rejection of nuclear power here, I'm going to disappoint. Given the climatic stakes, I'm compelled to support any form of carbon-free energy. My rejection of nuclear energy, rather, is more pragmatic.Even if we ignore concerns about waste disposal, weapons proliferation, or the threat of some operational accident or meltdown, there are other pieces of the nuclear puzzle that just don't fit. Time to dispel a couple of myths.Myth #1: Nuclear power would increase our energy independence: The United States imports about 85 percent of the uranium that powers our nuclear plants, and prices have tripled in the past three years. By my calculations, nuclear plant operators spent $19.8 billion on imported uranium in last year alone.Myth #2: Nuclear power will help achieve carbon reduction targets: Maybe by 2100, or 2050, but certainly not sooner. Building nuclear plants takes a long time-at least 10 years from proposal to power. Look, for instance, at Florida's Progress Energy. Progress filed for permits for twin 1,100-megawatt reactors over a year ago, in March of 2008, and the plants aren't expected to be producing any juice until 2018 at the earliest. If a bumper crop of new nukes is in our future, we can't realistically expect any carbon-free power until 2020. Not in time to help reach any emissions targets that are firm enough to actually avoid climate mayhem.Myth #3: Nuclear power is "the cheap clean energy solution": This one's a doozy. Despite all the claims being thrown around by special interest shills, nuclear power is not cheap. Just last year, the California Public Utility Commission found that new nuclear was more expensive than every other new electricity option, with the exception of coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration. Building Alexander's 100 new plants would cost at least $1 trillion. (In fact, a study last month by a Vermont Law School economist found that "Consumers could pay $1.9 trillion to $4.4 trillion in excess costs if 100 new nuclear reactors are built instead of using renewable energy and energy efficiency to provide the same electricity.") The same amount of investment, according to CPUC, would buy four times as much wind power capacity.It might be easier to understand in terms of your utility bill. By industry estimates, new nuclear energy would cost $.15¢ to $.20 per kilowatt-hour. That's about 50 percent higher than the average U.S. household electric rate. Even worse, a January report by the Center for American Progress "puts the generation costs for power from new nuclear plants at 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour-triple current U.S. electricity rates!" As ratepayers, we'd take the biggest hit, but we'd be on the hook as well as taxpayers for whatever subsidies, tax breaks, and loan guarantees come out of Congress as part of this climate and energy bill.This isn't to say that nuclear shouldn't have any part of a low-carbon energy future. But on a level playing field, there's no way it can compete economically with concentrated solar, wind, biomass, natural gas, and-most important of all-efficiency. Private investors are staying away-Warren Buffett just pulled out of a project, for instance-and in 2007 there were exactly zero dollars of private capital globally funding new nukes (compared to $71 billion for renewable energy globally). Ellen Vancko of the Union of Concerned Scientists recently said, "The nuclear industry would like to be able to finance the next generation of nuclear reactors using the faith and credit of the U.S. taxpayer to underwrite the expansion. They don't want to be responsible for any risk of financing these plants and neither do their lenders."Rather we as energy customers and taxpayers will essentially underwrite this big risk-again, cost estimates range from $1 trillion to $4.4 trillion for construction of the proposed 100 new plants. In other words, the playing field won't be level, and it'll be our dollars propping up nuclear's side of the field.
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