TCS Daily

Where Now, Nuclear?

By Duane D. Freese - July 18, 2002 12:00 AM

When the Senate voted on July 9 by a 60-39 vote to approve of the Yucca Mountain site as a repository for highly radioactive nuclear waste, the scene was deja vu for Bennett Johnston.

As the former Louisiana Senator told a forum at the Heritage Foundation, the celebration and glad-handing within the nuclear industry was reminiscent of that 20 years ago, when the Senate approved setting up a repository for nuclear waste. He never thought then that it would take this long to designate a site; now, he warns about getting too excited, but sees at least a light at the end of the Yucca tunnel.

If so, it is a dim one. Before Yucca Mountain - an arid, desolate place no one would cross a desert to visit (which makes it just perfect as a nuclear waste repository) - starts handling the 12,000 metric tons of defense and 54,000 tons of reactor wastes from 103 commercial plants, the Department of Energy must win approval of the repository's design from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It also likely will face constant lawsuits and court battles. The forecast date for starting hauling wastes to Yucca is eight years away.

Thus, it will be almost three decades - at least -- from when senators congratulated themselves on doing something permanent about nuclear waste and actually taking action.

That lengthy period of delay is a shame. And while the 60-39 vote is hailed as indicating the truly strong support for it, it comes up short if you figure that 39 states have nuclear facilities storing waste on their premises now. You would think, at the least, that 78 Senators had good reason to vote for Yucca just to get the nuclear waste out of their locales.

Process and Reprocess

But what of the overall merits of storing the waste? As the ultimate option for nuclear waste, storing it is only next to the best technological solution. Reprocessing it would be much better.

That is what goes on now in France and Japan with their spent fuel rods. Both countries lack America's vast coal and natural gas reserves. Both are thus more dependent on nuclear plants than the United States for electricity. As much as 80% of France's power comes from nukes. And both countries lack dry, arid, stable geologic places to get rid of it. So energy necessity has led them to reprocessing spent fuel.

And there are free marketers in this United States who think that reprocessing is the way to go here. But if you can imagine the anti-nuclear lobby fighting a repository, one can only hear the cacophony of nonsense that would accompany building a reprocessing facility in the United States.

Consider that in 2,400 operating years of nuclear facilities in this country, there has been only one - that's right, one - nuclear accident that might lead to any deaths or injuries to the public. That was Three Mile Island, where more than half the reactor core melted. Despite the hysteria surrounding the Three Mile Island reactor accident, the human toll 23 years later is that as many as five people will suffer an early death as a result - and it may turn out to be none.

The accident would have served the nation well as a cautionary tale about the need for redundancy in safety when dealing with nuclear materials. Indeed, in making improvements of existing plants to meet more stringent safety requirements, the utilities have performed a miracle of sorts - increasing power efficiency at each plant by 25% while at the same time lowering the exposure of workers.

But this good news gets drowned by an irrational fear of nuclear power and wastes. That fear led first to doubling both the cost - to more than $7 billion -- and time for selecting Yucca Mountain as a repository for waste.

And now that fear likely will lead to a drawn out battle over the transport of those wastes to that site. Already officials in Nevada are raising the specter that just the release of a tiny sand speck of the highly radioactive material transported to Yucca can cause cancer and that with some 50,000 shipments, some of it is sure to get out.

The argument neglects the reality that radioactive and other hazardous cargo are now in constant movement around the country. As the American Nuclear Society notes, the shipments to Yucca will "constitute an increase of less than 0.1 percent over the current number of radioactive shipments, and less than 0.0007 percent of the 400 million shipments of all kinds of hazardous materials taking place per year in the United States."

The casks made for the shipment of the high level nuclear wastes have undergone some of the most rigorous tests imaginable, including being hit by a freight train traveling at 81 m.p.h. and massive fires at heat in excess of that produced by a liquefied natural gas explosion. The waste itself and the routes taken to transport it will be well guarded.

Still, opponents will likely place significant demands on the disposal, such that the ultimate $58 billion, 100-year cost for dealing with the waste could double or triple. It is that possibility - that costs for dealing with the leftovers of nuclear generation will continue to rocket up - that more than anything acts as a deterrent to new nuclear facilities and keeps the free market from working as it should.

The day after the Senate decision to approve Yucca, The Christian Science Monitor argued that "while Yucca may help current nuclear plants continue, its eventual use shouldn't trigger a revival of interest in nuclear power. Taxpayers and electric ratepayers are smarter now in judging the lifetime costs of all energy systems. The environmental and financial costs of nuclear power may not stand up when compared with the many energy alternatives."

But what alternatives will so-called green groups allow? There's the rub.

If dangers associated with nuclear power generation and waste disposal were their old bugaboo, the greens' new one is global warming. And they are currently exploiting lawmaker's uncertainty about that issue to the hilt. To get rid of carbon dioxide emissions -- which they blame for an as yet unproven warming of the atmosphere -- they want to jettison coal, which now provides 52% of the nation's electricity and is this country's most abundant and cheapest energy resource. But they also oppose drilling for cleaner natural gas and oil reserves offshore, in Alaska and on federal lands, leaving the likelihood of supply shortages for those sources of another 18% of the nation's electricity.

Meanwhile, hydropower, which makes up about 7% of the electricity stream, is out of favor with greens, too, because it despoils streams. Altogether, with nuclear power, that places 98% of current sources of power generation out of bounds.

So, how will we power up in the future? Wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are the greens' alternatives. And they have legislation in Congress, including several Senate bills, that would force utilities to use ever increasing amounts of those sources in coming years, so they make up to 10% of the nation's electricity capacity by 2020.

Goes Around, Comes Around

Only the greens and their colleagues in Congress forget that obstructionism cuts both ways. For example, despite the high costs imposed on nuclear power generation due to too onerous regulation, it's still no more costly at 5 to 7 cents a kilowatt hour than the most efficient wind power facility, and about a third the cost for solar power.

While the measures of these differences are in pennies per kilowatt hour, in an economy that uses 3.8 trillion kWh a year, just a 3-cent change in the average price of energy for wind would cost consumers and business $104 billion, or about $1,000 a household; the 15-cent difference to run a solar economy today would mean a half trillion dollars a year added to electricity bills of consumers and businesses, or more than $4,000 a household across the nation.

If nuclear is "uneconomic," what does that make the renewables? And the costs of those renewables can be forced up, too, as nuclear has been. Once people discover that wind turbines make a lot of noise, and solar and wind chew up a lot of space - hundreds of squares miles of space to replace a single nuclear plant that can be located safely on a couple square miles - will they stay quiet?.

The more land a project takes, the more backyards it must cross. And Not In My Backyard remains the biggest obstacle to most energy projects. Yucca Mountain was on federal land, and it involved providing a disposal site for waste from an energy that the government for decades promoted. Yet, it took 20 years to get the Senate to give the Department of Energy the go ahead to draw up plans for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve. How many decades will it take to get huge renewable energy projects approved and cases opposing them decided?

It would take intelligent lawmakers - those truly concerned about a high-tech economy's energy needs that are expected to grow by 355 billion kWh over the next two decades - to pursue sensible economic options on energy, not pie-in-the-sky possibilities that require substantially more development to make economic sense. The Yucca vote was a start, but the energy light at the end of the tunnel will continue to look dim - and along with it the future of our economy - if Congress doesn't remove impediments to energy development rather than add new ones.



TCS Daily Archives