Posted May 6, 2008.
If you listen to the rhetoric, nuclear power is back. Smashing atoms will replace burning carbon-based coal, gas and oil. In the face of a disaster movie-like future of runaway climate change -- bringing drought, floods, famine and social breakdown -- carbon-free nukes are cast as the deus ex machina to save us at the last minute.
Even a few greens support nuclear power -- most famously James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory. In the popular press, discussion of nuclear energy is dominated by its boosters, thanks in part to sophisticated industry PR.
In an effort to jump-start a "nuclear renaissance," the Bush Administration has pushed one package of subsidies after another. For the past two years a program of federal loan guarantees has sat waiting for utilities to build nukes. Last year's appropriations bill set the total amount on offer at $18.5 billion. And now the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill is gaining momentum and will likely accrue amendments that will offer yet more money.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects up to thirty applications to be filed to build atomic plants; five or six of those proposals are moving through the complicated multi-stage process. But no new atomic power stations have been fully licensed or have broken ground. And two newly proposed projects have just been shelved.
The fact is, nuclear power has not recovered from the crisis that hit it three decades ago with the reactor fire at Browns Ferry, Alabama, in 1975 and the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. Then came what seemed to be the coup de grâce: Chernobyl in 1986. The last nuclear power plant ordered by a U.S. utility, the TVA's Watts Bar 1, began construction in 1973 and took twenty-three years to complete. Nuclear power has been in steady decline worldwide since 1984, with almost as many plants canceled as completed since then.
All of which raises the question: why is the much-storied "nuclear renaissance" so slow to get rolling? Who is holding up the show? In a nutshell, blame Warren Buffett and the banks -- they won't put up the cash.
"Wall Street doesn't like nuclear power," says Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. The fundamental fact is that nuclear power is too expensive and risky to attract the necessary commercial investors. Even with vast government subsidies, it is difficult or almost impossible to get proper financing and insurance. The massive federal subsidies on offer will cover up to 80 percent of construction costs of several nuclear power plants in addition to generous production tax credits, as well as risk insurance. But consider this: the average two-reactor nuclear power plant is estimated to cost $10 billion to $18 billion to build. That's before cost overruns, and no U.S. nuclear power plant has ever been delivered on time or on budget.
As Dieter Helm, an Oxford professor and leading economic expert on energy markets, has found, there never has been and never will be a nuclear power program totally dependent on the market.
Sixty years ago, the technology was swathed in manic space-age optimism -- its electricity was going to be "too cheap to meter." While that wasn't true, nuclear power did serve a key role in the cold war: spent nuclear fuel rods are refined for weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium. That fact aside, rarely has so much money, scientific know-how and raw state power been marshaled to achieve so little. By some estimates, an investment of several hundred billion dollars has led to a U.S. nuke industry of 104 operating plants -- about a quarter of the global total -- that produces a mere 19 percent of our electricity.
In fact, the sputtering decline of nuclear power has been one of the greatest industrial failures of modern times. In 1985 Forbes called the nuke industry "the largest managerial disaster in history."
Atomic optimism run amok caused the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. In 1983 Washington Public Power Supply System abandoned three nuke plants in midconstruction. The projects were plagued by massive cost overruns -- one infamous section of piping was reinstalled seventeen times, safety inspections were blatantly ignored, incompetent contractors were allowed to continue work and on and on. When the project finally died, unfinished costs had ballooned to $24 billion, and the utility walked away from $2.25 billion worth of bonds.
That project, like many others, drowned in the financial riptides of rising interest rates that were the central feature of the "Volcker recession" of the early '80s. (That was when Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker smashed inflation by jacking the Fed's interest rate from 8 percent in 1979 to more than 16 percent in 1982.) But nukes were also killed by the corruption and incompetence that so often plague large state projects, like Boston's Big Dig, the New Orleans levees, space-based weapons systems and Iraq's reconstruction.
Another reason atomic energy is so expensive is that its accidents are potentially catastrophic, and activists have forced utilities to build in costly double and triple safety systems. Right-wing champions of atom-smashing blame prohibitive costs on neurotic fears and unnecessary safety measures. They have a point in that safety is expensive, but safety is hardly excessive -- details on that in a moment.
More important is the fact that nuclear fission is a mind-bogglingly complex process, a sublime, truly Promethean technology. Let's recall: it involves smashing a subatomic particle, a neutron, into an atom of uranium-235 to release energy and more neutrons, which then smash other atoms that release more energy and so on infinitely, except the whole process is controlled and used to boil water, which spins a turbine that generates electricity.
In this nether realm, where industry and science seek to reproduce a process akin to that which occurs inside the sun, even basic tasks -- like moving the fuel rods, changing spare parts -- become complicated, mechanized and expensive. Atom-smashing is to coal power, or a windmill, as a Formula One race-car engine is to the mechanics of a bicycle. Thus, it costs an enormous amount of money.
Worldwide, about twenty nuclear power plants are being built, but most are in Asia and Russia and are closely linked to nuclear weapons programs. Japan and France have large nuke programs, but both countries heavily subsidize their plants, use a single design and built their fleets not to make profits but to ensure some minimum strategic energy independence and, for France, to build an atomic arsenal.
Even if a society were ready to absorb the high costs of nuclear power, it hardly makes the most sense as a tool to quickly combat climate change. These plants take too long to build. A 2004 analysis in Science by Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, of Princeton University's Carbon Mitigation Initiative, estimates that achieving just one-seventh of the carbon reductions necessary to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 500 parts per billion would require "building about 700 new 1,000- megawatt nuclear plants around the world." That represents a huge wave of investment that few seem willing to undertake, and it would require decades to accomplish.
None of this has stopped the Bush Administration and Congress from channeling more money toward nukes. The current push to build nukes began in 2002, when the Administration launched its Nuclear Power 2010 program, which sought to spur construction of at least three major nuclear power plants. Then came the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, which offered three major forms of subsidy. New nuclear power plants could get production tax credits, federal loan guarantees and construction insurance against cost overruns and delays -- together worth $18.5 billion.
The notion that nukes make sense and are the version of green preferred by grown-ups is being conjured by a slick PR campaign. The Nuclear Energy Institute -- the industry's main trade group -- has retained Hill and Knowlton to run a greenwashing campaign.
Part of their strategy involves an advocacy group with the grassroots-sounding name the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. At the center of the effort are former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman and former Greenpeace co-founder turned corporate shill Patrick Moore. (Moore is also a huge champion of GMO crops, which are notorious for impoverishing farmers in developing economies and using massive amounts of pesticides.) The industry also places ghostwritten op-eds under the bylines of scientists for hire.
All the major environmental groups oppose nuclear power. But the campaign is having some impact at the grassroots: the online environmental journal Grist found that 54 percent of its readers are ready to give atomic energy a second look; 59 percent of Treehugger.com readers feel the same way. In other words, people who understand climate change are feeling downright desperate.
But even the Oz-like magic of corporate spin, public subsidies and presidential speechifying have their limits. In late December the man whose name is synonymous with sound money turned his back on nuclear power.
Warren Buffett's MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Company scrapped plans to build a plant in Payette, Idaho, because no matter how many times its managers ran the numbers (and they spent $13 million researching it), they found that it simply made no sense from an economic standpoint.
South Carolina Electric and Gas has also suspended its two planned reactors, citing costs as the key factor. But the company says, "We remain very upbeat about the future of nuclear power."
If a nuke plant breaks ground soon, it will likely be NRG Energy's double-reactor plant, set to be erected in South Texas. But that one has also been delayed.
The fact that new nukes make little economic sense does not mean that old nukes are not profitable. In fact, these nightmarishly complex radioactive boondoggles have recently been turned into cash cows. Utilities achieved this remarkable transformation the old-fashioned way -- they used socialism.
Beginning in the 1990s, most American energy markets were deregulated one state, one region at a time. In the process many old utilities were broken up into different firms: some generated power, others sold it, still others handled transmission. One of the crucial details of deregulation was allowing utilities to pass on to rate payers the "stranded costs" -- the outstanding mortgage payments of their nuclear power plants.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this occurred in California. In 1996 the State Assembly passed legislation -- written by utility lobbyists -- that allowed Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric to hold rates high as prices dropped nationally. The two utilities were on target to receive $28 billion over four years. This money would pay off the stranded costs of the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre atomic plants. Halfway through the deal the California power crisis hit and deregulation was put on hold -- utilities were forced to stop selling off their assets, and third-party speculation in energy markets was halted. But the state floated bonds to mop up the remaining stranded costs.
Similar deals were struck across the country. Once unburdened of old debts, the nuke plants -- now having relatively low overhead costs -- became valuable assets. A new generation of firms began buying them up. By 2002 ten companies owned seventy of the nation's 104 reactors. Among the big players in this game are Exelon, Entergy and Dominion Resources.
Many of the old plants went for a song. A particularly disturbing example of this is Vermont Yankee, a thirty-five-year-old reactor purchased by Entergy seven years ago for a mere $180 million. That's about half the price it would cost to build an equal-sized coal plant or wind farm.
Now Entergy is trying to run the power station as hard and as long as possible. In 2006 it received approval to increase power output at the plant by 20 percent. This "uprate" means the plant operates with 20 percent more pressure, heat and flow. And in just one year it earned Entergy $100 million in profits. Over the last decade, almost all U.S. nuclear power plants have received uprates, but few match Vermont Yankee's full-throttle, 120 percent capacity.
Just after the uprate, one of Vermont Yankee's twenty-two cooling towers collapsed. That's right -- it crumbled and fell over. Entergy officials said the collapse "baffled" them. The plant's spokesman, Rob Williams, admitted that "our inspections were not effective enough." Reached by phone, Gregory Jaczko, a commissioner at the NRC, admitted that the collapse "didn't look good." But he went on to reassure the public that the plant is essentially safe.
Now Entergy is petitioning the NRC to extend its operating license so that it can run the old plant for twenty years longer than was intended. Nationally, forty-eight facilities have had their licenses extended. In fact, despite critics' arguments that aging plants pose serious dangers, no license renewal requests have ever been denied.
"The NRC falls all over itself to facilitate the industry," says Ray Shadis, a consultant who has worked for both environmental groups and on NRC panels and research projects. The Project on Government Oversight and other watchdog groups point to a revolving door between the commission's staff and the nuclear industry. To take just one example, in 2007 former commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield joined the Shaw Group after spending his last months on the commission pushing to ease restrictions for precisely the type of construction activities that were the Shaw Group's specialty.
Diana Sidebotham, an antinuclear activist in Putney, Vermont, twenty miles north of the Vermont Yankee plant, thinks Entergy and the NRC are courting disaster. In 1971 Sidebotham helped found the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, and she has been trying to shut down nuclear plants ever since. Her hillside farm looks out over the ridge lines of the Connecticut River Valley.
"One of these days a plant will blow," says Sidebotham, with just a touch of a genteel but steely New England accent. "And when it does, it will cause a great many deaths and widespread suffering, not to mention extraordinary economic damage."
Accidents do happen. In 2002 the Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant in Ohio was forced to close for two years after inspectors found a football-sized corrosion hole in the reactor's six-inch-thick steel cap. The plant was very close to a major accident. Repairs cost $600 million.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama says he opposes any more relicensing of old nuclear plants. His rival Hillary Clinton has stopped just short of saying that. However, as was reported by the New York Times, Obama has close ties to the nuclear industry, particularly the Illinois-based Exelon, which has contributed at least $227,000 to his campaigns. Two of his top advisers have links to the firm, including his chief strategist, David Axelrod, who was a consultant for Exelon. Obama voted yes on the 2005 Energy bill, which lavished subsidies on oil, coal, ethanol and nukes; Senator Clinton, like almost half the Senate Democrats, voted against it. The Obama campaign says that as President he would not cut nuclear subsidies, only that he would boost subsidies for green power.
Activists like Sidebotham say the real issue is not how to build more nukes but how to handle the old, decrepit plants and their huge stockpiles of radioactive waste. Most of the atomic plants in this country are reaching the end of their life span; seventeen have been decommissioned. And increasingly the question is what to do with the accumulated waste -- the extremely radioactive spent fuel rods. This is dangerous stuff. If exposed to air for more than six hours, spent fuel rods spontaneously combust, spewing highly poisonous radioactive isotopes far and wide. This spent fuel will be hot for 10,000 years.
Since 1978 the Energy Department has been studying Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a possible permanent repository for atomic waste. But intense opposition has held up those efforts. In the meantime, the partially burned uranium is stored at the old power plants, in pools of water called "spent fuel pools." Lying near great cities, on crucial river systems, in small rural towns, these pools are potentially a far greater risk than a reactor meltdown. Scenarios for how terrorists might attack and drain them range from driving a truck bomb to crashing an explosive-laden plane into them.
Just after 9/11, when security at nuke plants was supposed to be high, lead pellets started raining down on the containment structure and guard shack at Maine Yankee, in Wiscasset. (The plant has since been decommissioned.) A group of four men in camouflage, armed and intent on killing, had infiltrated into a swamp and were firing weapons from somewhere in the reeds. This "cell" turned out to be four local duck hunters who had no idea they were hitting the power plant.
Their foray against innocent mallards proved just how easy an attack could be. Activists demanded, and got, a safety review, which led to a shockingly blunt NRC document called "Report on Spent Fuel Pool Accident Risk," or NUREG-1738. The report found that containment structures, such as that at Vermont Yankee, "present no substantial obstacle to aircraft penetration." According to the NRC, a fire in the spent fuel pool at a reactor like Vermont Yankee (which stores 488 metric tons of spent fuel) would cause 25,000 fatalities over a distance of 500 miles if evacuation was 95 percent effective. But that evacuation rate would be almost impossible to achieve. The NRC claims to have the threat of terrorism under control, but for reasons of national security it can't explain how. And after 9/11 it admitted, "At this time, we could not exclude the possibility that a jetliner flying into a containment structure could damage the facility and cause a release of radiation that could impact public health."
Humanity's Faustian bargain with atomic power is a story still in its early stages. No one knows how long nuclear facilities will last or what will happen to them during future social upheavals -- and there are bound to be a few of those during the next 10,000 years.
This much seems clear: a handful of firms might soak up huge federal subsidies and build one or two overpriced plants. While a new administration might tighten regulations, public safety will continue to be menaced by problems at new as well as older plants. But there will be no massive nuclear renaissance. Talk of such a renaissance, however, helps keep people distracted, their minds off the real project of developing wind, solar, geothermal and tidal kinetics to build a green power grid.
Christian Parenti is the author of The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New Press) and a visiting fellow at CUNY's Center for Place, Culture and Politics.