As We Usher in the 21st Century, We Should Usher Out Nuclear Power

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Hotline, Spring 1999

Having just passed the 20th anniversary of the March 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, the nuclear industry is using the occasion to wage a coordinated campaign to revive nuclear power in the U.S. We are being told that nuclear energy is: (1) safe, (2) clean (the answer to global warming) and (3) an economical way to produce electricity.

None of these claims withstands even simple scrutiny.

It is well known that nuclear power production creates the deadliest and longest living wastes known to man. The technology to safely dispose of this waste has yet to be developed and it is becoming increasingly clear that safe storage is simply impossible to achieve. Nuclear plants only seem safe because government safety standards and Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight have been too lax. There are problems at U.S. nuclear plants just about every day, ranging from incidental to serious. Some of these problems are close to home. Today, for example, the zirconium tubes covering the uranium fuel pellets at Duquesne Light’s Perry nuclear plant are perforating, causing potentially dangerous radiation leaks.

There is a new concern about nuclear power. In states (including Pennsylvania) where electric deregulation has occurred, nuclear plants will have to run practically all the time to be competitive. Unlike other generators, nuclear plants are not designed to operate continuously. Safety is likely to be a casualty of the bottom line.

Nuclear power is not the clean energy its apologists claim. The smelting process used to make commercial grade fuel for nuclear plants contributes to greenhouse gases. Secondly, in addition to the waste problem, nuclear plants pollute our air, only you cannot see, smell or taste what they emit. Some of the most toxic gases known to man (for example, benzene) are by-products of the fission process and are routinely vented from the “off gas” building at nuclear plants.

You may remember when we were told that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” Well it is not. In fact, nuclear is one of the most expensive ways to produce electricity. When nuclear proponents provide their figure of what nuclear cost to produce electricity they often leave out the cost to build the plant. Indeed, it was the high cost ($10 billion) to build the Perry 1 and Beaver Valley 2 nuclear plants that now cause Duquesne Light customers to have to pay some of the highest rates in the country. And, it is the high cost of nuclear plants that accounts for most of the “Transition” charge on your new electric bill, no matter who supplies your generation.

A gas-fired plant can be built for $350 per kilowatt (kW); wind turbines are being installed at less than $1,000/kw. A nuclear plant costs $3,000 to $4,000 per kw to build. Nuclear fuel is relatively cheap compared to other fuels, but only if you ignore spent fuel permanent storage costs. When these and plant decommissioning costs are included, nuclear power is prohibitively more expensive, on a total cost basis, than other energy sources. Even nuclear power advocates are frightened by the prospect that these costs will be astronomical.

The fact is nuclear power is obsolete. There are cutting edge energy technologies available now that are competitive and more environmentally healthy. Despite being on the short end of government research and development funding, renewable energy technologies’ share of U.S. generating capacity (11% compared to 14% for nuclear) is growing at double-digit rates. According to a recent study by the Worldwatch Institute, nuclear power “has reached its peak and will begin a sustained decline in the year 2002 to its eventual demise.” Even France, the world leader in nuclear power usage with 70% of its electricity nuclear generated, has issued a moratorium on nuclear plant construction.

In the United States, no new power plants have been ordered since the mid 1970′s. Many utility companies, including Duquesne Light, are planning to unload their nuclear plants. Existing nuclear plants are being purchased for next to nothing , demonstrating their low market value. Only its position near the top of the corporate welfare rolls enables the nuclear industry to hang on in the U.S. Nuclear power proponents argue that the U.S. cannot afford to phase out nuclear power. Studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute show that we could significantly reduce our electricity demand just by using energy more efficiently. A concerted national effort, a “war against wasting energy,” combined with increased use of new, safe and clean energy technologies would enable the phase out of nuclear power.

It is time for our political leaders to recognize that nuclear power is not worth further investment. As we head into the 21st century, Americans should demand increased utilization of 21st century energy technologies.

by David Hughes, GASP Member and Executive Director of Citizen Power, Inc, a Pittsburgh-based, public policy research, education and advocacy organization