Also published on No Cure for That.

Last week President Obama announced an $8.3 billion loan of taxpayer dollars for the construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Vogtle site in Georgia. He has also proposed tripling the loans for new nuclear reactors to $54 billion in his 2011 budget.

In his announcement he argued, “To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we’ll need to increase our supply of nuclear power. It’s that simple.”

Sadly, Mr. Obama is mistaken on all points.

If by “we” the President means to speak on behalf of his Wall St. advisers and the industrial capitalist system he represents, “our” energy needs are not growing. They’re shrinking along with the economy. And while preventing the worst consequences of climate change is necessary, nuclear power is not.  It’s not necessary by any stretch of the imagination.

Here are 5 simple reasons why nuclear is not a sustainable solution to the energy woes of the 21st Century:

1. Nuclear is Too Expensive.

In economic hard times such as ours, we need cheap, readily-available sources of energy to create jobs and keep the lights on.  Nuclear is the opposite. Nuclear reactors require billions of dollars of government subsidies just to be built, because no private investor wants to throw their money into an expensive and dangerous project that might never produce a return.

To grab those government subsidies, nuclear companies regularly low-ball their price tags, knowing they’ll have to beg for more money later and that the feds will always give in. The recent TIME article “Why Obama’s Nuclear Bet Won’t Pay Off” explains:

If you want to understand why the U.S. hasn’t built a nuclear reactor in three decades, the Vogtle power plant outside Atlanta is an excellent reminder of the insanity of nuclear economics. The plant’s original cost estimate was less than $1 billion for four reactors. Its eventual price tag in 1989 was nearly $9 billion, for only two reactors. But now there’s widespread chatter about a nuclear renaissance, so the Southern Co. is finally trying to build the other two reactors at Vogtle. The estimated cost: $14 billion. And you can be sure that number is way too low, because nuclear cost estimates are always way too low.

Environment America’s report, “Generating Failure: How Building Nuclear Power Plants Would Set America Back in the Race Against Global Warming”, explains nuclear’s faulty economics further:

Market forces have done far more to damage nuclear power than anti-nuclear activists ever did. The dramatic collapse of the nuclear industry in the early 1980s – described by Forbes magazine as the most expensive debacle since the Vietnam War – was caused in large measure by massive cost overruns driven by expensive safety upgrades after the Three Mile Island accident revealed shortcomings in nuclear plant design. These made nuclear power plants far more expensive than they were supposed to be. Some U.S. power companies were driven into bankruptcy and others spent years restoring their balance sheets.

At the end of the day, there are much cheaper and better ways to produce energy.  The TIME article points out, “Recent studies have priced new nuclear power at 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, about four times the cost of producing juice with new wind or coal plants, or 10 times the cost of reducing the need for electricity through investments in efficiency.”

Instead of pouring billions of dollars into something the market wants to keep its distance from, why not spend that money on efficiency improvements or wind and solar, for which there is a growing market and massive public support?

2. Nuclear is Too Inefficient.

A big part of why nuclear is so expensive is that it’s incredibly inefficient as an energy source, requiring a high proportion of energy inputs as compared to what it produces in output.  Between the cost of building the plants and equipment (tons of steel, concrete, and intricate machinery), mining the uranium, enriching the uranium, operating under stringent safety regulations, disposing the radioactive waste, and eventually decommissioning the plants, there is a tremendous about of energy and money poured in to nuclear reactors, making the energy they produce proportionaly less impressive than is often touted.

Because of all the secrecy and bureaucracy involved in nuclear operations, we have no thorough documentations of exactly how much energy must be invested in order to produce a return (this fraction is sometimes called Energy Returned on Energy Invested – EROEI).

Gene Tyner carried out one such study called “Net Energy from Nuclear Power” and estimated that “an ‘optimistic’ one‑plant analysis shows that one plant may yield about 3.8 times as much energy as is input to the system over a 40‑year period.” The “pessimistic” estimate was just 1.86, meaning less than twice the energy expended is returned through electricity.

Once again, these statistics are significantly worse than for wind, solar, or increased efficiency, each of which would produce much more net energy with the same level of inputs. Wind, for example, could reach in excess of 50:1 EROEI.

Nuclear’s energy numbers are only going to get worse as time goes on and the quantity of high-concentration uranium in the world continues to be depleted. Mining lower-quality uranium, in more difficult environments, will further reduce the net energy that nuclear can produce. Indeed, this is a whole separate problem, but nuclear is unlikely to be any kind of replacement for fossil fuels in the long run anyway, with studies stating that Peak Uranium will be here “before 2040 at the latest.”

3. Nuclear Emits Too Much CO2 and Other Chemicals.

Nuclear is often touted by corporations and politicians as a “clean” energy source because the electricity generation process itself produces little to no carbon dioxide, the most notorious greenhouse gas responsible for driving our climate into chaos. However, nuclear does emit substantial greenhouse gas pollution, of both carbon dioxide and other chemicals, if we look at its complete production profile:

the nuclear fuel cycle does release CO2 during mining, fuel enrichment and plant construction. Uranium mining is one of the most CO2 intensive industrial operations and as demand for uranium grows CO2 emissions are expected to rise as core grades decline. According to calculations by the Öko-Institute, 34 grams of CO2 are emitted per generated kWh in Germany. The results from other international research studies show much higher figures – up to 60 grams of CO2 per kWh. In total, a nuclear power station of standard size (1,250MW operating at 6,500 hours/annum) indirectly emits between 376,000 million tonnes (Germany) and 1,300,000 million tonnes (other countries) of CO2 per year. In comparison to renewable energy, nuclear power releases 4-5 times more CO2 per unit of energy produced taking account of the whole fuel cycle.

Aside from radioactive wastes, other waste and pollutants from the manufacture of nuclear reactor fuel include mercury, arsenic and cadmium, which are disposed of on and off site, and hydrochloric acid aerosols, fluorine and chlorine gas, which are released into the air.

None of this pollution is acceptable. Mercury and arsenic in particular are known carcinogens, meaning they cause cancer, along with birth defects and other devastating illnesses. The location of the plants, as is typical, tends to distribute the negative health effects primarily to poor communities and communities of color, making this an environmental justice issue as well.

It just doesn’t make sense. Why invest in a technology that is excessively dirty when compared to genuinely clean sources of energy like wind or solar?

Quoting once more from Environment America’s report:

Building 100 new reactors would require an up-front investment on the order of $600 billion dollars – money which could cut at least twice as much carbon pollution by 2030 if invested in clean energy. Taking into account the ongoing costs of running the nuclear plants, clean energy could deliver as much as 5 times more pollution-cutting progress per dollar overall.

4. Nuclear Risks Radioactive Disaster.

So far we haven’t mentioned the traditional argument against nuclear reactors, that they 1) produce radioactive waste which we have nowhere to put, and 2) have the potential to melt down or be struck by a terrorist attack, which could cause almost inconceivable ecological calamity.

Few Americans realize how close we came to having to evacuate most of the Eastern Seaboard if the partial meltdown of the reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979 had caused an explosion in the core.  This nearly happened, and the warning that the Three Mile Island disaster has given us about the extreme danger of nuclear reactors needs to be recalled today.

The reality is that even without an apocalyptic Chernobyl-style or 9/11-style event, nuclear fission everyday produces hundreds of poisonous and radioactive toxins which did not exist on Earth before the 1940s. Each nuclear plant creates approximately 1,000 metric tons of high- and low-level waste yearly, which will not fully degrade for literally thousands of years. And this is only the most controlled aspect of the problem.

As Harvey Wasserman explained on Democracy Now! Thursday, lesser-known radioactive leaks are sadly a regular occurance at nuclear facilities:

There’s a huge fight going on, by the way, in Vermont right now, where the people of the state of Vermont are trying to shut the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which has been leaking tritium. And if you’re not aware of this, twenty-seven of the 104 nuclear plants in the United States have been confirmed to be leaking tritium now. These are plants that have been around for twenty, thirty years. If they can’t control more than a quarter of the operating reactors in the United States and prevent them from leaking tritium, what are they doing turning around with this technology and pouring many more billions of dollars of our money into it? It’s an absolute catastrophe, and we will stand up to it.

An update on Wasserman’s story – yesterday (2/24) the Vermont Senate voted to close the Yankee plant in part due to these concerns about radioative leaks.

The bottom line is that while billions of dollars can be spent to secure the radioactive fuels and waste, there will always be a risk that things will go wrong due to technological breakdown or human error, and the consequences could be dire.

The only safe way to deal with nuclear reactors is to shut them down.

5. Funding Nuclear is Another Corporate Bailout.

So if nuclear energy is too expensive, too inefficient, too polluting, and too dangerous, why in the world are our well-intentioned political leaders like President Obama promoting such a technology? Have they lost their minds? No. The better question, as is usually the case in Washington, is who stands to benefit from this decision?

And the obvious answer is the nuclear industry, which has relied on government subsidies for half a century, and continues to swindle the public out of our hard-earned tax dollars with outdated lies about cheap, abundant, clean nuclear power.

Just like the defense industry or the banks, nuclear companies like Exelon use their high-placed connections in Washington to secure government contracts, loans and bailouts behind the backs of the public, and it doesn’t really matter whether there’s a Democrat or Republican in the White House.

Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! reported on the Obama Administration’s ties to Big Nuclear:

Exelon is not just a nuclear power industry generator, it’s the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the United States. I think it has seventeen. And the firm was a major—has historically been a major backer of President Obama. And two of his chief aides have ties to Exelon. Rahm Emanuel, as an investment banker, helped put together the deal that eventually merged, created Exelon. And David Axelrod was a lobbyist for Exelon. So there are very close ties between the chairman of Exelon, John Rowe, and the Obama administration.

We need to understand the actions of politicians within their context. The context for President Obama’s announcement of $8 billion in loans to a nuclear reactor in Georgia and tripling the federal government’s funding of nuclear energy in his 2011 budget, is a nuclear industry that’s been on the run from its crippling problems for 30 years, and needs a big boost from the taxpayers in order to compete with less expensive, less controversial energy sources like wind and solar.

Then you have the reality of a failed political system that relies far more on corporate donations and advertising than it does on genuine democratic participation, so that politicians like Obama are structurally dependent on pandering to corporate/financial donors to get elected and stay elected, and you have a recipe for systemic corruption and giveaways.

Ben Schreiber, climate and energy tax analyst of Friends of the Earth, put it succinctly, “The last thing Americans want is another government bailout for a failing industry, but that’s exactly what they’re getting from the Obama administration.”

So what should the government be putting its (our) money into instead?

I’ve made the obvious suggestion of wind and solar power, which are cheaper and produce energy more efficiently than nuclear. Wind and solar also have the added benefit of being appropriate for local, small-scale energy production. Given the resources and trained in the skills, communities can install wind towers and solar cells, maintain them, and distribute their output themselves, without the intermediaries of corporations or government. This not only creates many thousands of jobs, it also opens up possibilities for a 21st Century that could be more democratic, locally-rooted, and decentralized than the last one.

What are your ideas? What would YOU do if you were in Obama’s position and could throw $50-some billion around towards an actually sustainable economy?

Alex Knight

February 25, 2010

p.s. see my related post about Karen Silkwood, assassinated anti-nuclear activist.

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