The mirage of nuclear power
Monday, August 06, 2007

In the last two weeks, the Chinese signed a deal with Westinghouse to build four nuclear power plants; a U.S. utility joined the French national nuclear juggernaut — with 60 reactors under its belt — to build stations throughout the United States; and the Russians neared the launch of the first of a dozen nuclear power stations that float on water.

Two sworn opponents — environmentalists and President Bush — tout nuclear energy as a panacea for the nation’s dependence on oil and a solution to global warming. No one is talking about the recent nuclear accident in Japan caused by an earthquake.

These surprising bedfellows base their sanguine assessment of nuclear power on an underestimation of its huge financial costs as well as a willingness to overlook this industry’s history of offering far-fetched dreams, failing to deliver and the occasional accident.

Since the 1950s, the nuclear industry has promised energy “too cheap to meter,” inherently safe reactors and immediate clean-up of hazardous waste. But nuclear power is hardly cheap — and far more dangerous than wind, solar and other forms of power generation. Recent French experience shows a reactor will top $3 billion to build.

Industry spokespeople insist they can erect components in assembly-line fashion a la Henry Ford to hold prices down. But the one effort to achieve this end, the Russian “Atommash” reactor factory, literally collapsed into the muck.

The industry has also underestimated how expensive it will be to operate stations safely against terrorist threat and accident. New reactors will require vast exclusion zones, doubly reinforced containment structures, the employment of large armed private security forces and fail-safe electronic safeguards. How will all of these and other costs be paid and by whom?

To ensure public safety, stations must be built far from population centers. Thankfully, after public protests, regulators did not approve Consolidated Edison’s 1962 request to build a reactor in Queens, N.Y., three miles from the United Nations. But they subsequently approved licensing of units within 50 miles of New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington.

Industry representatives, government regulators and nuclear engineers now promise to secure the nation’s energy independence through inherently safe reactors. This is the same industry that gave the world nuclear aircraft and satellites — three of the 30 satellites launched have plummeted to Earth — and Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and a series of lesser-known accidents.

Let’s see them solve the problems of exorbitant capital costs, safe disposition of nuclear waste, realistic measures to deal with the threats of terrorism, siting far from population centers before they build one more station. In early July, Bush spoke glowingly about nuclear power at an Alabama reactor recently brought out of mothballs; but it has shut down several times since it reopened because of operational glitches. What clearer indication do we need that nuclear power’s time has not yet come?

(Josephson teaches history at Colby College in Maine. This essay first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.)