An Unacceptable Risk?
In spite of its obvious benefits, nuclear power may simply be too risky. Opponents of the nuclear renaissance point to a host of serious concerns. “They’re proposing a replay of a demonstrated failure,” says Paul Gunter, director of the reactor watchdog project at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). “The financial risks have only gotten worse, and our concerns about safety issues are heightened now that these plants are known terrorist targets.”
Alex Matthiessen, director of Hudson Riverkeeper, declares, “In the post-9/11 era, nuclear power plants pose an unacceptable risk.” He points out that NRC studies conclude that a serious accident at one of Indian Point’s two working reactors could cause 50,000 early fatalities.
Al Qaeda operatives have, by their own admission, considered attacking nuclear facilities. And according to Riverkeeper, only 19 percent of Indian Point guards think they can protect the facility from a conventional assault, let alone a suicidal mission. Riverkeeper says that the proposed evacuation plans for the area are woefully inadequate, and the site is vulnerable to an airborne attack. Plant operator Entergy refutes these charges, and says that the 3.5-foot steel-reinforced concrete containment structures protecting the reactor and other radioactive materials are “among the strongest structures built by man.”
The U.S. nuclear industry has avoided serious accidents since the near-catastrophic accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant in 1979. But there have been near-misses. In March 2002, workers repairing a cracked nozzle at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ohio discovered a football-sized cavity in the reactor. Because of corrosion, all that was holding back the 2,400-pounds per square inch (psi) pressure of the core was a bulging stainless steel liner approximately 3/16th of an inch thick. If the liner had failed, a loss-of-coolant accident similar to Three Mile Island would have occurred.
Millstone also had its share of troubles before Dominion bought it in 2001. In the mid-1990s, the four nuclear power plants run by then-owner Northeast Utilities were cited for more than 100 safety violations in two years. In late 2000, Millstone reported two lost fuel rods. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says, “The [NRC] must stop allowing plant owners to conduct fewer inspections and to defer inspections for economic reasons.”
More recently, in July of 2006, the Forsmark nuclear reactor 1 on Sweden’s east coast experienced a short circuit and went into emergency shutdown. Two of four emergency-cooling diesel engines did not start as expected, disabling control room operations—and thus human control—for a critical 23 minutes. According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, “For critics, the incident shows yet again how vulnerable nuclear power plants are to a failure in electricity systems.”
In early April of this year, operators of the Vogtle Nuclear Plant near Augusta, Georgia received low marks for their response to a simulated nuclear accident. The NRC judged that the emergency director had “overdiagnosed” the problem (a pump shaft breakage that caused metal parts to fall into the reactor coolant system) and gave the plant a “poor” grade.
Nuclear defenders point out that these are the problems of aging Generation II plants, and the new Generation IV units will have many safety and efficiency advantages. Pebble bed reactors, for instance, are now in the planning stages in China and South Africa, and supporters say a meltdown is nearly impossible with that design. Pebble beds simplify waste storage and can be built quickly, they say, without the crippling cost overruns.
Economists question if the technology is cost-effective. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has stated that even if next-generation nuclear plants can be built efficiently, their costs are likely to be two to four times greater than building natural gas, coal or wind plants. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the private firm Standard and Poor’s concluded that investing in loans to build nuclear power plants is an unwise risk. A host of insurance analysts have come to the same conclusion. The last American nuclear power plant to go online, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar, fired up in 1996 after 23 years of construction and billions of dollars of over-budget spending.
A Renaissance under Fire
In its 2003 study, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” MIT researchers concluded that some 1,000 to 1,500 new reactors would have to be built worldwide by 2025 in order to put a serious dent in global warming. There are only 400 atomic power plants online now, and any major expansion would meet a host of economic, political, security and NIMBY (“not-in-my-backyard”) challenges.
Because of planned plant retirements, the industry will have to work hard simply to keep up current nuclear capacity, let alone ramp it up to offset global warming. Current proj
ections by the U.S. Energy Information Industry show very little nuclear growth by 2030.
The uranium supply is also an issue. On the spot market, uranium prices have soared as existing reactors have worked through supplies from mothballed plants. Demand is projected to exceed supply and push prices higher. The shortfall in uranium mining can be at least partly made up in uranium enrichment (an outgrowth of atomic bomb development), but capacity is limited there, too.
Uranium enrichment also aggravates both global warming and ozone depletion. The single remaining uranium enrichment plant in the U.S., Paducah Gaseous Diffusion in Kentucky, emits highly destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used to dissipate heat generated by the compressors. And the plant is fired by two large, extremely dirty coal power plants.
Although nukes avoid the smokestack problem, the nuclear process is not emission-free. The cycle from uranium mining to milling and processing, as well as waste storage and transportation, all involve greenhouse gas emissions.
In his book Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change (IEER Press), Brice Smith admits that, when compared to fossil fuels, nuclear power emits far lower levels of greenhouse gases, even when mining, enrichment and fuel fabrication are taken into account. But to effectively challenge the global warming problem, he says, a new reactor would have to come online somewhere in the world every 15 days on average between 2010 and 2050. Even with this growth, he calculates that the proportion of electricity coming from nuclear sources would grow only slightly, from 16 to 20 percent over the period.
Also, says Smith, a huge nuclear expansion would increase the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The world’s capacity to enrich uranium would have to go up dramatically by a factor of 2.5 to six. A dozen new enrichment plants would produce thousands of tons of highly deadly plutonium each year. And just one percent of that capacity would be enough to support the construction of 210 nuclear weapons per year.
NIRS argues that, in the next 60 years, the industry is capable of building only half the 1,500 new reactors needed to significantly offset global warming, and that the enormous construction costs—estimated in the many trillions of dollars—would be much more effectively spent on renewable energy projects.
“Even under an ambitious deployment scenario, new plants could not make a substantial contribution to reducing U.S. global warming emissions for at least two decades,” says the Union of Concerned Scientists.
JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.