CHITRA GOPALAKRISHNAN WASHINGTON DC
It is celebration time for the nuclear power industry in usa . The cause celebre: the national energy policy unveiled by President Bush on May 18 gives the go-ahead for nuclear reactor construction after 25 years of abstinence. Arguing that nuclear power is cheap, clean, safe, and a plentiful energy source, the plan recommends revitalising the industry that currently produces one-fifth of usa 's electricity. To jerk it out of its near-comatose stage, it proposes to streamline the regulatory process for building new reactors; extend the life of as many as103 existing plants, reconsider the reprocessing and use of plutonium, and renew the law that limits liability on the industry for nuclear accidents.
In the build-up towards the Bush administration's energy transition policy, the advisors were essentially chosen from the mining, coal, oil and gas, electric and nuclear industries. It certainly has been a 'cashing-in-on-the-campaign-chips' time for industry leaders, estimated to have emptied us $22.5 million in the last elections. While the energy industry's slightest observations got embedded in the report's recommendations, the environmental lobby got just one mass meeting. The only organisation allowed on board the energy transition team to speak for environmental interests was a representative from Alliance to Save Energy.
The nuclear industry began making efforts at consolidating, merging and globalising much ahead of the release of the report. General Electric is the only us -owned reactor manufacturer at present. As a result of the proposed energy plan, a few utilities -- Exelon, Entergy, Dominion Resources, peco , Constellation Energy, Duke Energy, Unicom, Southern Company, along with Tennessee Valley Authority -- will soon control the entire commercial nuclear complex, according to the Nuclear Institute Research Service (nirs), a Washington dc-based nuclear watchdog organisation.
The National Energy Information Centre of the Energy Information Administration ( eia ), in the us Department of Energy says that us company Entergy has announced plans to build a portfolio of 12 to 15 nuclear power units in the next five years. In addition, peco and Entergy are merging, which will create a nuclear leviathan. This is a further consolidation for peco, which merged with Unicom in October 2000 to create the nation's largest nuclear utility. Many more mergers are pending in the final tally, five companies will account for 40 per cent privately held nuclear capacity, with over 100 accounting for the rest.
The Nuclear Control Institute ( nci ) president Paul Leventhal said: "The Bush administration's call for a major expansion of nuclear power and for reconsideration of reprocessing and use of plutonium, an atom bomb material, as reactor fuel, is a 21st century siren's song."
The nuclear resurgence strategy also includes inviting foreign investment, very hard to refuse and reverse once the money flow begins. In December 1999, British Energy, through its AmerGen joint venture with peco Energy, purchased Clinton power station in Illinois. It then purchased Three Mile Island Unit 1 in Pennsylvania. It currently owns eight nuclear plants in the us and wants to buy 20 more. Today, AmerGen is among the major shareholders of America's nuclear assets. It has also reached an agreement to lease and operate two of Canada's largest power plants.
"Too cheap to meter" To push their agenda forward, the main argument of the nuclear industry is cost-effectiveness. The Bush-Cheney plan extends the old industry rhetoric that nuclear power is "too cheap to meter". But it fails to touch upon the inability of nuclear plants to perform without substantial federal and state subsidies, says Anna Aurilio, Legislative Director of the Washington dc -based United States Public Interest Research Group ( pirg ).
She claims that the nuclear industry has received more than us $66 billion as taxpayer research and development subsidies since its inception. Apart from wasted billions and cost overruns, nuclear power plant operators have cost consumers higher-than-average electricity rates and they have reaped high profits in so-called "stranded costs" in states that have undergone deregulation of the electricity markets. To recover the capital costs of non-functioning nuclear power units, these industries have been allowed to charge payment from everyone, regardless of whether they use power from this sector. Another survival technique that nuclear plants employ is to ensure extension of licenses of existing reactors beyond original design life, she adds.
More significant is the support granted in the form of a taxpayer-financed insurance policy known as the Price Anderson Act that limits nuclear liability in the event of an accident to about us $7 billion. After an accident, taxpayers would be expected to make up the difference, a liability protection no other industry enjoys. This gives it an unfair economic advantage. A nuclear accident, it is estimated, can cost anything over us $300 billion in damage to lives and property.
If nuclear power is a better investment than gas or coal-fired power, then why is government help necessary, question Jerry Taylor and Peter VanDoren of the Cato Institute, a highly regarded think tank on public policy based in Washington dc . In an article Nuclear Power Play , published in The Washington Post , they debunk Cheney's argument that there has been no utility company in the last 20 years because of government disinterest.
No utility company, according to Taylot and VanDoren, has submitted an application for a nuclear power plant in more than 20 years. Investors shy away from nuclear power, as it is twice as expensive as coal or gas-fired electricity. Operational costs are lower, but the capital costs are prohibitive and will take decades for the returns. They say nuclear plants have been able to function this long only because the federal government took complete responsibility for the supply and enrichment of uranium.
In a similar vein, journalist Robert J Samuelson, in an article in Newsweek , states that the way to energy cost-effectiveness is not to address supply as the Bush administration is doing but to buttress consumption with high taxes. This would not only bring down demand but also create a strong market for energy efficient products. Raising taxes is something that is alien to Bush's tax cut policy so this is bound to remain a non-starter.
In defence of nuclear power
The other side of the picture is presented by the eia , which calls itself an independent statistical and analytical department of the United States Department of Energy. It paints a glowing picture of nuclear power plants in its report Nuclear Generation: Another Year, Another Record , released in March 2001. The report estimates the total power generated by nuclear plants to be 753.9 billion kilowatthours (kwh), 3.5 per cent above the previous record of 728.1 billion kwh in 1999. This, it says, is despite the United States having only 103 reactors as compared to 111 operating as recently as 1990.
The annual capacity utilisation rate of the nation's nuclear industry, measured by the annual net capacity factor (the ratio of the amount of electricity actually generated to the amount of electricity that could be produced at full power with continuous operations) is put at 89.1 per cent. "Recent years of reliable service and declining production costs have led to increased industry interest in nuclear power plant license renewal," it adds. It underlines the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ( nrc ) has approved the license renewal of five nuclear power plants in 2000, received five additional applications since; and expects 28 more to be submitted by 2004.
In a strange contradiction, the administration's Department of Energy ( d o e ) did make a case for energy efficiency and renewable power being able to meet 60 per cent of usa 's need for new electric power plants over the next 20 years. Natural Resources Defence Council, a Washington dc -based organisation, blames the Bush-Cheney energy plan for ignoring the d o e report completely. They relied on projections by the eia , known historically to emphasise energy supply from traditional sources and downplay the importance of efficiency and renewable sources.
In a more frightening development, the International Atomic Energy Agency ( iaea ), a specialised agency within the United Nation's system that serves as the world's central intergovernmental forum for scientific and technical cooperation in the nuclear field, in its report Electricity, Nuclear Power and the Global Environment, provides a rationale for extending nuclear power to the developing countries and offers infrastructural support.
Is anyone thinking of renewable energy?
While on the one hand, the Bush energy plan promises to use capital resources generated from drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ( anwr ) for research and technology in the area of renewable energy (an irony!), on the other there is a serious threat of cutting down budgets for solar and wind energy projects under the tax cut plans. Environmentalists have not overlooked the collision of interests. "Renewable energy is still considered to be the domain of backyard tinkerers by the Bush administration," they angrily retort.
Alden Meyer, director of government relations, Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of scientists from all over the world who have come together to voice concerns on various issues, particularly nuclear power, argues that the cost of producing electricity from wind has dropped 90 per cent since the 1980s. Currently the 3,000 megawatts of wind power installed in the United States, produces electricity for 3 to 6 cents per k w h, which through additional investment in research and development could drop to 2.5 cents a kwh.
Solar energy, he says, is ideally suited for central, eastern and western regions of the United States as they produce electricity cheap and at times when the electricity grid is at its peak. He also points out that biomass could provide an additional 3,000 mw of electricity by 2010. The installed capacity of geo-thermal energy is 2,700 mw . There are 1,300 geothermal direct-use systems currently in operation and the cost of producing power ranges from four cents to eight cents per kwh. The industry is working towards cutting down the energy cost to three cents. If encouraged, it can also increase generation ten-fold -- supplying 10 per cent of the energy needs of the western states.
The question of safety
The us Nuclear Regulatory Commissions ( nrc) chairperson Richard Meserve sees strong safety performance to be the reason behind the nuclear industry's current resurgence. James Lake, president of the American Nuclear Society similarly touts the industry's safety performance and comments it is "ten times better than that of all the industrial sectors of the United States."
To bolster all these persuasive efforts, the d o e in its 900-page report has evaluated the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as a potential site for an underground repository for used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. "The public will not be exposed to any radiation from the repository for 10,000 years which is the proposed regulatory compliance period. After 10,000 years, the estimated dose level at 20 k m below ground level would well be below the naturally occurring background levels," it says.
The radiation limit of the Yucca repository has been set at no more than 15 millirem per year from all pathways. As the proposed repository sits above an aquifer that is a critical source of water for irrigation, dairy cattle farming and drinking water, and the epa announced a separate four millirem per year standard to protect groundwater. But a coalition of environmental groups charges that by arbitrarily limiting the standard to the first 10,000 years of operation, the dose limits for the repository do not account for the maximum radio-nuclide exposures that will be caused by the Yucca Mountain, which are projected to occur much later.
On the flip side: shortsighted and dangerous
"The Bush-Cheney administration's promotion of nuclear energy is distressingly short-sighted and potentially dangerous," comments Kayle Rabin, Nuclear Energy Policy Project Director for the Albany-based Environment Advocates. " It is all about denial and fantasy: Denying the nuclear meltdowns and near disasters; fantasising that Yucca Mountain will solve the country's radioactive waste problems. Nuclear power must be phased out."
The Federal Business Bureau cautions against a major failure in a nuclear plant's cooling system that could trigger a nuclear meltdown. Even if a reactor is shut down, with inadequate cooling the heat from the radioactive decay of fission products is sufficient to cause the fuel to melt through the reactor vessel, they say.
Charles Perrow, a professor of sociology at Yale University in his most path-breaking book Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies , cautions against the dangers inherent in each stage of the fuel cycle in nuclear reactors. Mining of uranium, refining, enriching, processing and fabricating into the usable fuel subassemblies; burning to produce heat, re-processing of used fuel, fabricating new fuel subassemblies and long-term storage of wastes leave humankind vulnerable to unquantifiable risks.
He introduces the term 'normal accidents' to mean system characteristics of modern operations (be it nuclear, chemical airway or marine industry) make multiple and unexpected failures inevitable. Taking the case of Three Mile Island (a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, overheated, on March 28, 1979, releasing radioactive gases in the usa 's worst nuclear disaster) he shows how technical failure, human error and bad luck are to blame and will be a possibility in every reactor.
The mining of uranium, used as a fuel in nuclear power plants, is a hazardous process that leaves huge radioactive uranium tailing pipes and disastrous after-effects. After uranium ore is extracted, it undergoes a process of enrichment during which a small amount of highly radioactive Uranium-235 isotope is extracted from uranium ore for use in reactors. This process requires substantial amounts of electricity, much of which is produced by coal-burning plants in the Midwest. Many nuclear power plants also have 'once through' cooling water intake systems that require two-and-a-half times as much water as fossil fuel plants with similar cooling systems, that seriously harm water resources and aquatic water systems.
The health impacts of radiation have been reiterated so often over the years that it needs no mention. Even low level radiation has been conclusively proven to cause damage to tissues, cells, dna and other vital molecules causing cell deaths, genetic mutations, cancers, leukemia and reproductive, immunity and endocrine system related disorders.
Plutonium, a deadly fuel
Maintains Tom Clements, executive director of nci ; "the Bush energy plan endorses consideration of conventional reprocessing for waste management that separates plutonium for use as a fuel in reactors which is dangerous. The separation of plutonium and associated isotopes and accelerator transmutation of plutonium and other long-lived radioactive products in nuclear reactor spent fuel, are uneconomical and dangerous. The d o e estimated in 1999 that this would cost us $280 million.
He further adds that the French national utility, held up as a model by the Bush administration admits that reactor fuel made with plutonium is three to four times more expensive than the conventional fuel made with low-enriched uranium that cannot be used in bombs. Though at present, France relies for 76 per cent of its electricity from reactors, there are no new reactors planned. Instead France plans to diversify its fuel base.
The British plutonium programme, too, has proved an economic and technological disaster, with a stockpile of some 70 metric tonnes of separated plutonium and no domestic utilities willing or able to use it. Similarly, the Japanese plutonium programme is caught in a controversy because of safety and security concerns and high costs associated with mixed uranium-plutonium oxide ( mox ) fuel. An accident in 1995 closed the Japanese breeder reactor, Monju. It is also generating tensions in East Asia as Japan's neighbours are wondering why the Japanese are accumulating large stockpiles of atom bomb materials.
The usa has had a similar experience. Twenty years and more than a billion dollars later, it is still cleaning up the contamination caused by the first experiment in reprocessing at West Valley, New York, remind members of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington dc . Reprocessing is economically hopeless, environmentally destructive and was banned in the 1970s because of the real threat of plutonium proliferation.
Clements also cautions about the security concerns associated with the transport of this deadly carcinogen. The United States Department of Transportation issued a new rule on international radioactive transport. It exempts quantities and concentrations of hundreds of radioactive substances from its regulatory control. Existing uniform international nuclear transport regulations, which require labelling and regulation of radioactive materials are also currently being changed to allow radioactive waste to move from country to country unimpeded.
There have been howls of protests by environment groups in many European countries, particularly France, Germany and Switzerland, over movements of spent fuel after spots of radioactivity were found on containers and wagons. The movement of used fuel across borders was banned for a while but was soon resumed. An ngo in the Netherlands, wise -Amsterdam, has recently won a victory in the form of winning a lawsuit against British Nuclear Fuels Ltd ( bnfl ) and the Dutch nuclear plant Dodewaard. They had jointly filed a case to stop the green organisation from opposing the transport of reprocessed nuclear waste from the power plant to bnfl facilities in the United Kingdom. The disposal of plutonium is also a contentious issue. Plutonium reacts differently when exposed to air and water and becomes very soluble in water. This means that plutonium over time will transform to a chemical form that will move quickly into the biosphere. And, more importantly the burial method is a folly. The question is: will the earthquake-prone Yucca Mountains in Nevada, the proposed burial site, be suitable for long-term atomic waste storage?
Nuclear power is green?
In recent speeches, Cheney has promoted nuclear power as a solution to global warming and air pollution. While it may be technically correct to claim that nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide, the devil is in the details. Most economies are so cash-strapped that it is not easy for them to invest in technologies that are environment friendly, which are much more expensive. Simple cost calculations prove that it is simpler to invest in wind energy technologies, which also have the advantage of being a renewable source.
If the technology adopted is environment unfriendly, there is the danger of carbon dioxide being emitted at each step of the step of the nuclear fuel chain, from uranium mining, milling, enrichment, fuel fabrication, construction of the reactor, transportation and storage and decommissioning of old reactors. Each of these stages is also a source of radioactive contamination and deposition of long lasting toxic wastes. In comparison with renewable technology, the carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear reactors are four times higher.
"Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it." The us has set in motion a process to revitalise nuclear power plants ignoring the lessons of Chernobyl, the world's most gruesome nuclear disaster in 1986. The rest of the world may follow and rummage in the nuclear rubbish. Is a nuclear apocalypse inevitable?