Time to the End the Nuclear Power Delusion

The devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 has once again cast nuclear power in a negative light. Fukushima Dai-Ichi has now joined Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl as warnings of an even-more devastating nuclear disaster that could lie in our future. In each instance, the public received assurance that the accident was simply an aberration. Nuclear power’s defenders assure all who will listen that most reactors are safe and nuclear accidents are rare. Pressed to respond to the U.S. public’s fears about radiation expelled from the damaged Japanese reactors, President Obama has reiterated his administration’s commitment to building new nuclear plants both to help the United States lessen its dependence on foreign sources of energy and to reduce the production of greenhouse gases contributing to global climate change. New regulations and safety procedures, he assured, would prevent Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushimi Dai-Ichi from reoccurring. The president seems to have learned little from his embarrassing assertions about the safety of deep-water oil drilling in 2010 just days before the BP oil rig disaster began in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nuclear power is a chimera that has been taunting the world since 1945. As the dust still settled in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists and government officials held out nuclear power as a panacea that would create energy so cheap and plentiful it would not need to be metered. A world of economic abundance and leisure would be the primary result of this “sunny side of the atom.” But despite decades of direct and indirect federal aid, the nuclear power industry remains heavily dependent on government largesse to stay afloat. The U.S. nuclear industry has received $100 billion in government subsidies and still cannot compete with other forms of energy production on the private market. Federal aid covers sixty to ninety percent of the power generation costs at each plant and current government incentives essentially pay for the entire cost of a plant’s construction. Government aid continues long after the plant is built. No private company will provide insurance to hedge against accidents, so once again Washington has to ride to the rescue. The Energy Department also becomes responsible for all nuclear waste once it leaves a plant’s cooling pools and temporary storage facilities. One also needs to factor in other ways Washington props up the nuclear industry including the free research and development provided through the planning and construction of nuclear reactors for defense purposes. Washington has to provide all this aid because Wall Street has turned its back on nuclear power. In 2007, renewable energy development attracted $71 billion in private investment while nuclear power received nothing. If not for government aid, the nuclear power industry would already be just a memory in the United States. Countervailing environmental benefits do not justify the government money ladled into the nuclear power industry’s coffers. One study estimates that each renewable energy option, such as wind, solar, biomass, buys two to ten times as much climate protection as nuclear energy.

Nuclear waste is the elephant in the room during any discussion about the environmental consequences of nuclear power. The notion that nuclear energy is “green” is patently absurd. No one knows what to do with the toxic, radioactive byproduct of existing reactors, which now totals over 77, 000 tons and is temporarily being stored at over 121 locations across the country. The Japanese nuclear crisis has underlined the seriousness of this problem. With no power to maintain the correct temperature in the cooling pools at the nuclear plants, the water evaporated and dangerously high levels of radiation spilled out into the air and ocean. Even after the spent fuel rods leave the power plants, they remain dangerous for thousands of years. The current standards for both the Pilot Waste Isolation Plant in New Mexico and the pending permanent waste isolation site require the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor the radiation levels at each site for 10, 000 years and require local agencies to monitor the sites from year 10, 001 to year 1, 000, 000. At the New Mexico site, the federal government has collaborated with a team of linguists, science fiction writers, anthropologists, and futurists to come up with warning signs and symbols to etch into huge granite slabs and pillars surrounding the subterranean waste pit. Pictograms, English, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic, and Navajo will all be used to convey the dangers of the buried materials and space will be reserved on the granite to add warning in any new languages that emerge over forthcoming millennia. A global society that is unable to plan for next week’s natural disaster, as Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami graphically illustrate, is taking upon itself the task of protecting nuclear waste for 1,000, 000 years. Even in the near term, what communities will stand by and allow nuclear waste to be stored near their citizens or for nuclear waste to be transported through or near their borders?

The United States confronts an intractable waste problem that will only get worse if it encourages more power plants. A nuclear boom will also exert pressure to relax regulations and, as in so many cases in the past, the regulators will likely be co-opted by the regulated. It is a familiar pattern from railroad regulation in the nineteenth century to the disturbing stories of the flouting of environmental and safety standards regarding offshore oil drilling in the years leading up to last year’s Gulf spill. Already reports of faked safety reports and lax regulatory enforcement have tumbled out of Japan as the country struggles to get its damaged reactors under control. The tendency to allow for slack oversight also increases in a long-term U.S. budget environment in which the executive and legislative branches will be looking for ways to cut costs and reduce deficits.

Profound national security questions also confront the expansion of nuclear power production. Reactors and waste storage sites provide inviting targets for terrorists who either wish to steal nuclear material for use in so-called dirty bombs or for direct terrorist strikes. This danger increases as the number of plants and storage sites grow. If the world follows the American example and expands nuclear power production, the weapons proliferation threat will increase significantly. Every nuclear reactor creates weapons-grade fissionable material that can later be separated from the rest of the nuclear fuel and set aside for later military use. India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, Iraq, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and, possibly, Iran have now and in the past used research and development for nuclear power production as a screen to obscure the extent of their quest for a nuclear weapons capability. As the Obama administration attempts to rehabilitate nuclear power as part of a national energy strategy, it is actually undercutting the president’s goal of reducing the global nuclear weapons threat.

The Japanese crisis provides a sharp warning that little good and many dangers will result if the federal government pushes for expanded nuclear power production. Washington instead should work to phase out existing nuclear power plants and focus its efforts on finding a secure and safe way to store nuclear waste. Money allocated for new nuclear plants should instead be diverted to renewable energy sources. Abandoning nuclear power is long overdue and it makes sense for both the United States and the global community.