Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Demise of Nuclear Power

As I follow the ongoing nuclear events in Japan, I am relieved that we here in Humboldt County dodged a major bullet. We once had used nuclear fuel from our tiny shut-down reactor stored in a fuel pool which could have ruptured with "the big one," a tsunami, a terrorist attack, or just plain human error. Loss of cooling water would have exposed us to the same dilemma facing the workers and residents at Fukushima today.

Two years ago, PG&E spent $64 million out of the $500+ million decommissioning fund to put the 150 tons of spent fuel into 5 heavy duty lead/concrete canisters. These casks are now firmly secure in a concrete vault on site. They won't tip over or roll around in a big earthquake; they won't be affected by a huge tsunami since they are stored below ground level. If anything should happen within their lifetime, they are constantly guarded, monitored, and readily accessible for repair, modification, etc. It's the best storage option for this material until something better comes along.

And yet, I ponder what could have happened here. Suppose the fuel pool had been damaged. What impact would that have had on me? I live about 20 miles from the site. Would I have had to evacuate? Permanently? What would have happened to our population centers within a 50-mile radius? Our gas-fired electric power plants are located on the same site; another local wood-fired generator is just a few miles away. Would these facilities have been shut down and abandoned? What would have happened to beautiful Humboldt Bay? What about the milk and vegetables we produced? What effects would this have had on the lives of all the wonderful people living in Humboldt County?

Well, it didn't happen here. And yet, I am concerned about my fellow Americans in Southern California, New York, and the 30+ locations where nuclear power plants exist in this country. Most of them are still at risk.

The 104 operating nuclear plants in the US, have generated some 78,000 tons of spent fuel - most of it stored in pools. If safety regulations become more stringent, and these rods are mandated to be stored in dry casks, the cost could exceed $50 billion. In 2007, the cost estimate for the Yucca Mountain project, the permanent repository for this waste, was $106+ billion. $13 billion has already spent on excavation and site characterization. Chances are it will never open. If we add in the future costs (about $5 million/yr at Humboldt Bay) of maintaining dry casks all over the US, and eventually delivering them to their ultimate disposal site, could the costs be $200 billion? $300 billion? Half a trillion dollars??? Taxpayers will be paying this bill for a long, long time.

Nuclear power generates 18% of the electricity in the US, about 6% of the total energy we use. This industry could not exist without massive taxpayer subsidies. Even today, utilities can't find investors willing to risk building new reactors. The industry has never been able to find insurance coverage. The Price Anderson Act limits industry liability to $12 billion, a fraction of the costs Japan is facing . You and I have paid, are paying, and will continue to pay for the $500+ million to decommission our small reactor. There are 104 much larger ones to eventually dismantle.

Is this cheap, clean, cost-effective electricity? Hardly! The industry today is mounting a renewed arrogant campaign to mislead the public into believing that nuclear is safe, and our only option. Nukes generate electricity…period. Less than 1% of our oil is used to generate electricity. Building more reactors would do NOTHING to make us less reliant on imported oil. The proposed new generation of nuclear power plants may be safer, but they still face and create the same financial, waste disposal, and ultimate safety and proliferation problems.

Hopefully, in these tough economic and political times, government-subsidized nuclear power will finally meet its demise. The potential for a sustainable RENEWABLE energy economy is enormous. The best part is that the fuel is free. We just need the political will to harvest it.

It's a new day, and here comes the SUN!

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