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Nuclear Explosion at Montreal

By Ronald Bailey - December 9, 2005 12:00 AM

MONTREAL -- "This is a dirty filthy industry," screeched Elizabeth May, head of the Sierra Club of Canada. Her outburst occurred during a panel discussion devoted to nuclear energy and climate change at the United Nations Climate Change Conference at Montreal. The panel was sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation which is a think tank affiliated with the German Green Party. The panel was convened for the release of the Foundation's new study Nuclear Energy and Climate Change. The study was done by Felix Christian Matthes, a policy analyst from the Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin.

What provoked May's eruption was that the report's findings were being vigorously challenged from the floor by a phalanx of representatives of the nuclear power industry. First, what did Matthes conclude? Matthes started by suggesting that the emissions of greenhouse gases will have to be cut by up to 60 percent by 2050 in order to prevent an increase in the earth's average temperatures of more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial temperature levels. Accounting for projected increases in the demand for power, this means that between 25 and 40 gigatons of the chief greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (GtCO2) would have to be cut by the middle of this century.

At a previous United Nations Climate Change conference at The Hague, negotiators excluded nuclear power from receiving greenhouse gas emissions reduction credits under the Kyoto Protocol. The goal of Matthes' study was to find out whether or not increases in the production of electricity by nuclear energy are necessary to achieve the deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Unsurprisingly, the Böll Foundation study found that nuclear power was not necessary -- that deep emissions cuts could be achieved through increasing the energy efficiency of buildings (4 GtCO2), industrial plants (5 GtCO2), and transport (7 GtCO2) combined with new renewable energy sources (15 GtCO2), carbon capture and sequestration (4 to 10 GtCO2), fuel switching from coal to natural gas (3.6 GtCO2) and co-generation (GtCO2).

Matthes asserted that it would take tripling the size of the nuclear power industry to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5 gigatons (5 GtCO2). To achieve this would mean that 25 gigawatts (25 GW) of new nuclear power plants would have to be built each year for the next 50 years. A gigawatt is enough energy to supply about 400,000 homes each year. Another panelist Michael Mariotte from the anti-nuclear group, Nuclear Information and Resource Services (NIRS), noted that it would mean that a new nuclear plant would have to be built every two weeks in order to achieve the goal of generating 25 GW more power each year.

Matthes argued that nuclear power has failed the "market test" because the industry depends on government subsidies in the form of caps on liability and funding for long term waste disposal of high level radioactive wastes. It was these claims that the industry representatives in the audience were keen to try to refute. However, it was clear that the anti-nuclear panelists did not believe that subsidies were per se bad., just that they did not want nuclear power to enjoy them. For example, panelist Oswaldo Lucon, an environmental activist from Brazil, claimed that tens of billions go to subsidize fossil fuels and nuclear power each year, but that industrialized countries spent only a total of $2.8 billion on renewable sources of energy.

First, Colin Hunt from the Canadian Nuclear Association dismissed the activist implication that the number of power plants needed to offset 5 GtCO2 of emissions cannot be built fast enough. "Building enough nuclear facilities to produce 25 GWs of additional power each year is equal to the construction worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s," he said.

So what about the subsidy claims made by Matthes and other anti-nuclear activists? Liability insurance for nuclear power plants is governed by the Price-Anderson Act in the United States. Sama Bilbao y Leon, a nuclear safety analyst with the U.S. electric utility Dominion Power and a representative the American Nuclear Society, explained the two-tier insurance scheme that operates in the United States. First, each nuclear power plant is required to purchase $300 million in private liability insurance from American Nuclear Insurers (ANI). ANI is a syndicate of stock property and casualty companies formed to write material damage and liability insurance on industry-operated nuclear reactors and related operations. If that turns out not to be enough to cover a loss, then the second tier kicks in. In such a case, each nuclear plant must pay a proportionate share of the loss, up to a maximum of $100.6 million per reactor per accident. Since there are 104 operating plants in the United States this amounts to a pool of $10 billion dollars in insurance.

The anti-nuclear activists scoff at this, suggesting that $10 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential losses. On the panel they repeatedly cited the damage caused by the 1986 Chernobyl reactor fire in the old Soviet Union which spread radioactive fallout across northern Europe. Make no mistake about it, Chernobyl was a huge disaster, but fortunately its consequences, bad as they are, are much less than had originally been feared. Nuclear supporters were quick to point out the many serious flaws in the Chernobyl reactor design, not the least of which was that it was not surrounded by a containment facility. Thus when it exploded, it belched radioactive material directly into the atmosphere. Such containment is required for nuclear power plants in the United States and most of the rest of the world.

Pro-nuclear activists point to the 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania. A tiny amount of radioactive gases escaped the containment. Epidemiologists estimate that perhaps one person over the course of his lifetime might get a fatal cancer from exposure to TMI accident radiation. Eventually, the private insurance pool paid out $71 million in claims and litigation costs for the TMI accident, well within the private liability limits set at that time. Pro-nuclear activists argue that current insurance scheme is not any different than other schemes in which the government acts as insurer of the last resort for activities that are socially beneficial but whose risks are hard to accurately quantify. For example, they point to the national Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund which is a no-fault insurance scheme that is designed to compensate people who have been harmed by bad reactions to childhood vaccines.

Nevertheless, Matthes and his fellow panelists may have a point. Would private insurers offer policies for higher liabilities if the federally imposed caps were removed?

What about the claim that the government subsidizes the disposal of nuclear wastes? Here the activists are wrong. The nuclear industry people point out that taxpayers do not subsidize nuclear waste disposal; ratepayers do. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires electricity consumers to pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund a fee of one-tenth of a cent for every nuclear-generated kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed. That fund now totals $24 billion. It may be government mandated, but it is not government financed.

The current plan is to bury high level nuclear wastes at an underground facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. So far about $6 billion dollars have been spent on the facility and some estimates suggest that the ultimate cost might reach $58 billion. Nevertheless, the Nuclear Waste Fund mechanism seems adequate for covering the waste disposal costs.

Finally, it certainly should not be the case that nuclear power is pre-judged and excluded by international treaties dealing with climate change. If the activists are so sure that they are right that nuclear power will fail the market test, then they ought to give the market a chance to prove them right.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books. His email is rbailey@reason.com.
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