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Forum: Nuclear power - unsafe, dirty and expensive

It's time to disable an obsolete industry, says David Hughes, and support 21st-century methods of generating electricity

Sunday, March 28, 1999

Twenty years ago today, the worst nuclear plant accident in the nation occurred at the Three Mile Island plant. In connection with the anniversary, the nuclear industry has been waging a coordinated campaign to revive nuclear power in the United States. We are being told that nuclear energy is safe, clean (the answer to global warming) and an economical way to produce electricity.

  David Hughes is executive director of Citizen Power, a Pittsburgh-based public policy research, education and advocacy organization. 

None of these claims withstand 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. At a plant in Perry, Ohio (near Cleveland), partly owned by Duquesne Light, the zirconium tubes covering the uranium fuel pellets are perforating, causing potentially dangerous radiation leaks within the reactor. The leaks are exposing plant workers to extra radiation and increasing the likelihood that more radiation would be released into the atmosphere in case of a serious accident.

Nine such leaks have been detected at Perry since it began operation in 1987. The latest ones were discovered last September, but apparently Duquesne Light and FirstEnergy (the plant manager) decided to wait until their regularly scheduled maintenance, beginning yesterday before doing anything about them. (Duquesne Light, by the way, intends to sell its share in the plant this year to FirstEnergy.) Last month the Union of Concerned Scientists succeeded in getting the NRC to hold hearings on the leaks. So far, the NRC has taken no action.

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 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 of building 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 that 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 percent compared with 14 percent 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 percent of its electricity nuclear-generated, has established a moratorium on nuclear plant construction.

In the United States, no new power plants have been ordered since the mid-1970s. 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.

Nuclear power proponents argue that the United States cannot afford to phase out nuclear power. Studies by the Rocky Mountain Institute show that we could significantly reduce our electricity demand 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.

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