Both major candidates for president are effusive in their praise of alternative ways of producing energy, and their lists of how to go green usually include nuclear power. John McCain’s energy plan calls for 45 new nuclear power plants. Barack Obama is less enthused; he says he’d go forward only if the problems of nuclear waste disposal and safety problems were solved. Enthusiasm aside, neither candidate admits that nuclear power remains a bargain with the devil.
A key question that needs to be answered is, “Where’s the radioactive waste to be stored?” One answer is the congressional solution of permanent storage in Nevada, though for the ninth time, Nevada is suing the government to halt the long-delayed Yucca Mountain repository. Nevadans don’t welcome becoming a dumping ground for the nation for 100 reactors.
McCain dodges the issue by saying Yucca Mountain shouldn’t be federally certified unless it’s completely safe. Meanwhile, where is nuclear waste to go? If producing nuclear power results in the creation of plutonium, we’ll need storage for the 240,000 years it takes to dissipate it (plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, and it takes 10 half-lives to dissipate.)
McCain confidently states that nuclear fuel can be reprocessed. Recycling plutonium, however, produces only a slight reduction in the waste produced, or so says Princeton nuclear physicist Frank N. von Hippel, in his recent Scientific American article, "Nuclear Fuel Recycling: More Trouble Than It's Worth."
Producing nuclear power also takes more water than other generating sources -- 700 gallons per megawatt hour of electricity produced. Where are nuclear proponents going to get sufficient cooling water in the arid West? And what might happen when drought accelerates and a reactor can’t be cooled?
McCain points out that France produces 80 percent of its energy from nuclear power -- a rare instance of a politician praising French ingenuity. One French plant, however, may have to shut down part-time because it exceeded allowable radioactive emissions in just six months. And in July, the French independent nuclear commission reported four malfunctions in four plants in 15 days -- prompting the online magazine Grist to dub these plants the “Nukes of Hazard.” The malfunctions contaminated 126 workers, but not to worry: The French government said exposure was below dangerous levels. The US government made similar claims to workers at the nuclear reprocessing facility in Rocky Flats, Colo., and then concealed or “lost” dosimeter radiation readings.
Our reliability record is spotty, too. A 2006 Union of Concerned Scientists’ study found that U.S. nuclear reactors have experienced 51 shutdowns, each lasting more than a year. Poor management and ineffective regulatory oversight caused these closures, which cost ratepayers and stockholders nearly $82 billion in lost revenue.
Then there is always the risk of a meltdown if we resume construction of nuclear power plants. Many Americans probably don’t remember or have never read about the meltdown of the Three Mile Island power plant in the 1970s. Its cleanup took from 1979 to 1993, and cost ratepayers, taxpayers and stockholders around $975 million. To paraphrase cowboy poet Wallace McCray, reincarnated nuclear power in this new century “ain’t changed all that much.”
After the nuclear plant at Chernobyl experienced an even more dangerous accident in the Soviet Union, in 1986, vegetables grown hundreds of miles away contained measurable radioactivity, causing Europeans to shun them.
In 2000, the German government negotiated a Nuclear Exit Law, requiring all 19 German atomic power stations to shut down by 2020. That’s no easy task for a country of 82 million people that relies on nuclear power for 30 percent of its supply. But it began to happen in May 2005, when authorities started closing down Obrigheim, a plant near the Rhine River south of Frankfurt.
Now, the German political winds have shifted, and the phase-out is on hold. Alternative energy has boomed, however: Germany produced 11.9 percent of its electricity from solar and wind in 2006, almost equal to the European Union’s goal of 12 percent renewable power by 2010.
How is the Unites States doing? Since 2004, the 19 states in the Western Governors Association added more than 35 percent of the 43,500 megawatts of electric generating capacity they’re projected to need by 2015 from wind turbines, solar collectors, geothermal power plants and other clean, renewable energy sources. With seven years left to go, in the West at least, we shouldn’t need new nuclear powered or coal-fired plants.
As one renewable-energy company’s slogan says, we can “stick it where the sun does shine.”
Russ Doty is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the chief operating officer of New World WindPower in Billings, Montana.