Nuking the comeback

Why are free market conservatives pushing a socialist energy source like nuclear?

Republican Senator Tom McClintock last week held a press conference to introduce legislation that would encourage California to develop more nuclear power plants.

Republican Senator Tom McClintock last week held a press conference to introduce legislation that would encourage California to develop more nuclear power plants.

photo by Larry Dalton

Peter Asmus is the author of Reaping The Wind: How Mechanical Wizards, Visionaries and Profiteers Helped Shape Our Energy Future and Reinventing Electric Utilities: Competition, Citizen Action and Clean Power, both published by Island Press.

The electricity supply crunch that has crippled California and much of the West has sparked talk of restarting Rancho Seco, the only nuclear reactor to be closed down by a ballot initiative vote, way back in 1989.

While this desire to restart a nuclear reactor is just a pipe dream, since Rancho Seco is in the process of being dismantled, this call for greater reliance upon splitting atoms to generate electricity is clear evidence that nuclear power advocates are trying to stage a comeback.

In their view, power supply shortages and growing evidence of the negative impacts of global climate change point to the need to increase electricity-generating capacity that doesn’t add to the growing cloud of pollution spewing from the smokestacks of the nation’s dirtiest power sources: huge coal-fired power plants and small diesel generators.

Those advocates have already won some public sympathy. A much-publicized Field poll discovered that a majority of California Democrats, Republicans and independents now believe that nuclear power could help ease the current supply crunch. The 59 percent approval rating for nuclear was the highest support figure for nuclear power since accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.

Yet the Bush administration, and other Republican advocates for nuclear power, should have a hard time reconciling their simultaneous support for nuclear power and electricity deregulation.

There has never been a more subsidized, socialized power technology than nuclear. It only works in an environment of heavy-handed regulation and central planning. Virtually all of the countries that derive the greatest amount of electricity from nuclear—France, Lithuania and Ukraine, for example—feature centrally planned, socialist energy policies.

How quick free market ideologues forget that Forbes magazine once described the nation’s experiment with wide-scale deployment of nuclear power plants as “the largest managerial disaster in history.” Why? Because these facilities cost three times the amount of ratepayer funds as was originally projected.

It is true that nuclear power plants do not contribute as much as coal plants to global climate change. But that is not the whole story. Consider the following:

In the nuclear fuel processing process, the uranium enrichment process depends on great amounts of electricity, most of which is provided by dirty fossil fuel plants releasing all of the traditional air pollution emissions not released by the nuclear reactor itself. Two of the nation’s most polluting coal plants in Ohio and Indiana, for example, produce electricity primarily for uranium enrichment.

The operation of nuclear power plants releases dangerous air emissions in the form of radioactive gases, including carbon-14, iodine-131, krypton and xenon.

Uranium mining mimics techniques used for coal, and similar issues regarding toxic contamination of local land and water resources arise—as do unique radioactive contamination hazards to mine workers and nearby populations. Abandoned mines contaminated by high-level radioactive waste can continue to pose radioactive risks for as long as 250,000 years after closure.

Concerns about chronic or routine exposure to radiation are augmented by the supreme risk of catastrophe in the event of power plant accidents. A major failure in the nuclear power plant’s cooling systems, such as the rupture of the reactor vessel, can create a nuclear “meltdown,” easily killing as many as tens of thousands of people.

Rancho Seco: Is it facing a restart, or continued dismantling?

photo by Larry Dalton

Nearly 90 percent of the U.S. uranium deposits have been found in the Rocky Mountain states, the vast majority of which resides on Native American lands.

I first learned about the electricity industry when covering the battle to close Rancho Seco, which had grabbed national headlines because of a long list of problems that resulted in local rate increases exceeding 200 percent.

Since Seco was shut down, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District rose to the ranks of being among the most respected utilities in the country, noted for its vision, public accountability and support for environmentally friendly solutions like conservation incentives.

The United States, with its 103 operating nuclear power plants, is already the world’s top consumer of electricity generated from nuclear fission. Still, we have yet to build a federal repository for a high-level nuclear waste stockpile that is accumulating at a rate of 2,000 tons per year. California law forbids the building of any new nuclear reactors in California until the federal government designates a repository for the nuclear waste.

Conservative leaders such as Senator Tom McClintock would have California put pressure on the federal government to designate such a site and make nuclear power a centerpiece of our long-range energy strategy. But is such a plan compatible with our newly deregulated market?

Large centralized power plants are totally out of sync with long-term trends in the power industry. By the time a set of new and improved (but untested) nuclear power plants were sited, constructed and brought on-line, the current “energy crisis” may well be over—and ratepayers will again be stuck with the tab.

True, it is economics that has suddenly transformed California’s two nuclear reactors—Diablo Canyon and San Onofre—into cash cows for their utility owners. Operating costs of these facilities, claims the industry, is 1.83 cents per kilowatt-hour.

What the nuclear industry doesn’t tell you is that the immense capital costs for California’s reactors have already been collected from ratepayers during the first few years of deregulation—and that’s why these facilities are cheap to run today.

Let’s also not forget that Diablo Canyon came on-line 11 years later than planned and had a price tag $5 billion more than the original estimate (which also, by the way, came out of the pockets of Pacific Gas & Electric’s captive ratepayers).

The most damning argument against nuclear power as a solution to today’s supply and reliability conundrum is illustrated by what happened at San Onofre in early February. A 30-minute fire there knocked one of the 1,100 MW reactors off-line until mid-June. This outage of approximately four months is costing taxpayers some $6 million per day because of the high cost of replacement power.

Large, centralized sources such as nuclear hark back to a time of hyper-regulation, cost overruns and rate hikes. Many utility owners now want to extend the lives of nuclear reactors another 20 years. Yet, as these facilities age, risks of a catastrophic failure go up. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that aging reactors have already experienced eight forced shutdowns in the last 16 months.

Instead of fantasizing about nuclear power, growing numbers of members of Congress are pushing the Bush administration to shift support to wind power, the world’s fastest growing power source for each of the last 10 years, a technology ideally suited to today’s volatile deregulated and price-sensitive electricity market.

Worldwide installations of wind power outstripped those of nuclear for the second year in a row in 2000. With a record amount of wind power coming on-line in the United States, most of it in the West due to the high cost of fossil fuel facilities, bets are that wind will win again in 2001. Wind farms can be added to the grid quickly and in small increments, increasing diversity and reliability simultaneously.

Wind power is compatible with current trends toward distributed power supplies that echo what has happened in telecommunications and computers. Capital spending can be flexible and more easily accommodate changes in the balance between supply and demand.

A single wind turbine trips off-line, and the amount of power lost is minuscule. A large nuclear reactor trips off-line, and ratepayers get soaked for millions of dollars. Yet the choice of wind or nuclear is a complex political decision, one with which Californians are just beginning to wrestle.