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Page added on July 30, 2007

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The mirage of nuclear power

The industry has never proved that it can deliver on its far-fetched dreams.


In the last two weeks, the Chinese signed a deal with Westinghouse to build four nuclear power plants; a U.S. utility joined the French national nuclear juggernaut — with 60 reactors under its belt — to build stations throughout the United States; and the Russians neared the launch of the first of a dozen nuclear power stations that float on water, with sales promised to Morocco and Namibia. Two sworn opponents — environmentalists and President Bush — tout nuclear energy as a panacea for the nation’s dependence on oil and a solution to global warming. They’ve been joined by all the presidential candidates from both parties, with the exception of John Edwards. And none of them is talking about the recent nuclear accident in Japan caused by an earthquake.


These surprising bedfellows base their sanguine assessment of nuclear power on an underestimation of its huge financial costs, on a failure to consider unresolved problems involving all nuclear power stations and on a willingness to overlook this industry’s history of offering far-fetched dreams, failing to deliver and the occasional accident.


Since the 1950s, the nuclear industry has promised energy “too cheap to meter,” inherently safe reactors and immediate clean-up and storage of hazardous waste. But nuclear power is hardly cheap — and far more dangerous than wind, solar and other forms of power generation. Recent French experience shows a reactor will top $3 billion to build. Standard construction techniques have not stemmed rising costs or shortened lead time. Industry spokespeople insist they can erect components in assembly-line fashion a la Henry Ford to hold prices down. But the one effort to achieve this end, the Russian “Atommash” reactor factory, literally collapsed into the muck.


The industry has also underestimated how expensive it will be to operate stations safely against terrorist threat and accident. New reactors will require vast exclusion zones, doubly reinforced containment structures, the employment of large armed private security forces and fail-safe electronic safeguards. How will all of these and other costs be paid and by whom?


To ensure public safety, stations must be built far from population centers and electricity demand, which means higher transmission costs than the industry admits. In the past, regulators approved the siting of reactors near major cities based on the assumption that untested evacuation plans would work. Thankfully, after public protests, Washington did not approve Consolidated Edison’s 1962 request to build a reactor in Queens, N.Y., three miles from the United Nations. But it subsequently approved licensing of units within 50 miles of New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. New Orleans had three days of warning before Hurricane Katrina hit and was not successfully evacuated. A nuclear accident may give us only 20 minutes to respond; this indicates that reactors should be built only in sparsely populated regions.


LA Times



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