Rancho rising?

First it was disco music, polyester pants and platform shoes. Now, like so many other atrocities from decades past, nuclear power is in the midst of a media-hyped comeback, as the building of new nuclear plants is touted as a possible solution to California’s power woes.

For everyone who came of age during the era of ABBA and Whip Inflation Now buttons, this is like hearing that Richard Nixon has risen from the grave and making another run for president. Yet it’s true: Recent weeks have seen media stories on the “renewed interest” in nuclear power; bills are now pending in the Senate and the state Legislature that would subsidize development of nuclear energy; and for the first time in 20 years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering plans for a new plant.

Seemingly sane people have even broached the idea of reopening Sacramento’s Rancho Seco, the nuclear plant we voted to shut down 12 years ago. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the fact that the recent energy “shortage” has been the product of California’s poorly designed attempt at deregulation. For now, let’s focus on nuclear energy, and why it needs to be defeated—again.

First off, it’s by far the most expensive means of producing power. Building a nuclear plant costs four times more per kilowatt than natural gas, and construction of nuclear plants almost always runs well over budget. Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon plant, for example, was $5 billion over budget and 11 years behind schedule when it came online. Industry proponents often argue that nuclear energy is inexpensive, once the plants are up and running, but these folks tend to ignore the fact that nuclear plants can’t operate without massive subsidies from the federal government—some $7 billion a year—to insure them against catastrophic accidents.

And accidents do happen. In addition to the well-known disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, recent years have seen a series of lesser incidents in the United States and abroad. As if these mishaps weren’t enough to worry about, there have been instances of flagrant mismanagement, such as the 1999 case in which a Connecticut utility pled guilty to 25 felonies for lying to regulators and illegally dumping waste.

Which brings us to the central, unavoidable problem with nuclear energy: There is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. These plants generate tons of radioactive material that must be stored—in some cases, for hundreds of thousands of years—in a facility where it can’t contaminate soil or water or subject the public to the hazards of radiation exposure. No such facility exists anywhere, yet nuclear plants are allowed to continue generating their toxic mess.

This industry should be shut down, not expanded. We had the right idea when we pulled the plug on Rancho Seco, and we should all make our feelings known again before nuclear energy’s "comeback" goes any further.