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#221 - As The Bill For Nuclear Power Comes Due, 19-Feb-1991

Whether you favor the Gulf War or not, you should know that President
Bush and his friends are using it as a smoke screen to cover anti-
environmental policies they are pushing on the home front. For example,
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Jan. 26 (NY
TIMES, pg. 11) that toxic chemicals and radioactivity entering the
environment will now get reduced attention from the agency.

Mr. Bush's 1991 energy plan calls for fast-track licensing of more
nuclear power plants accompanied by new limits on public comment on the
siting of radioactive waste dumps. (NY TIMES Feb. 9, pg. 41). For its
part, the nuclear industry is using the Gulf War to try to frighten us
all into believing we need more nuclear power plants because our
foreign oil supplies are "dangerously unpredictable."

Unfortunately, nuclear power isn't a good answer to our need to get
loose from our Middle East oil dependency. For all its chrome-plated
promise, nuclear power has fallen flat on its face--and the worst is
yet to come. Nuclear power plants are now facing a challenge that their
designers never anticipated, though they should have--what to do with
the power plants after their useful lives are over.

Nuclear power plants last 30 years or less. After 30 years, a reactor's
pressure vessel becomes brittle and subject to breakage, simply as a
result of constant bombardment by nuclear particles. In addition, after
30 years or so, the radioactivity in pipes and valves has accumulated
to a point where maintenance workers are receiving unacceptable doses
of radioactivity, so more maintenance crews must come in (to reduce the
time any one worker spends getting zapped), which makes maintenance
expensive.

Old nuclear plants cannot simply be abandoned, or demolished with a
wrecking ball. They are full of radioactivity, all of which must be
kept away from living things. Much of the radioactivity decays away
within 50 years, but three million years must pass before a nuclear
plant becomes no more radioactive than the original uranium that
initially fueled it. Managing a defunct nuclear reactor, and its
associated load of radioactivity, is called "decommissioning" it.

At the end of 30 years (or less), there are three choices for
decommissioning a defunct reactor: (a) dismantle it and ship it to a
radioactive waste dump; (b) mothball it for 30 to 50 years while its
worst radioactivity decays, then dismantle it and ship it to a dump
somewhere; (c) weld its doors shut, "permanently" entomb it in
concrete, and walk away.

This last option is no longer considered a real possibility because
nuclear engineers have figured out that normal weathering processes
will destroy the "tomb" long before the radioactivity inside has
decayed away to harmless levels. Therefore, simply "entombing" a
reactor is not acceptable from a public health perspective.

This leaves only two choices. Unfortunately, the first choice--
dismantle it and ship it to a dump somewhere--assumes that an
appropriate dump exists. However, after 50 years of trying to figure
out what to do with radioactive wastes, our government and its friends
in the nuclear industry still have no real plan for safely managing
radioactive wastes. There are plans underway to dig exploratory holes
in the ground in Nevada, Washington state, and Texas (and Uncle Sam is
already digging a giant hole in the ground in New Mexico, all the while
protesting that this hole is not intended for decommissioned reactors),
but at each of these locations unexpected problems have come to light,
and there are groups of scientists at each location who have good
reasons for believing that each place is unsafe for storing radioactive
garbage for hundreds of thousands of years--something humans have never
tried to do before.

Therefore, there is only one remaining solution to this problem, and it
really is a temporary fix at best: weld the doors shut, encase the
place in concrete or steel, put up huge skull-and-crossbones signs to
try to scare curious children away, and settle back to wait while Uncle
Sam comes up with a solution to the radioactive waste problem. This, of
course, has the added benefit of passing all the major costs along to
our children or grandchildren. Current estimates are that
decommissioning a reactor will cost anywhere from $100 million to one
billion dollars per reactor. Since initial estimates for the cost of
building reactors were low by at least 1000%, we should probably take
these first decommissioning estimates as optimistic best guesses,
likely to turn out to be sadly low.

In the U.S., four small commercial reactors are waiting to be
"decommissioned" now. During the next 18 years, an additional 67 large
nuclear reactors will need to be decommissioned. Worldwide, more than a
dozen reactors have already been shut down and are awaiting
decommissioning; 66 more will retire by the year 2000, and an
additional 162 will need to be decommissioned by 2010. The problem is
growing.

In the meantime, we must not create any more of these deadly, expensive
hulks. U.S. taxpayers sunk $70 billion in subsidies into the
development of nuclear power technology; electric utilities invested an
additional $125 billion, which is more than the cost of the entire
space program or the war in Vietnam. Our commitment to nuclear power
has slowed the search for real solutions to our energy problems because
dollars spent on nuclear plants are not available for finding real
solutions--like weatherizing buildings or making efficient cars. Past
investments in nuclear power are one major reason why we're still
hooked on Middle East oil today. Our enormous investment in nuclear
power has yielded reactors which in general cost less to write off
after they are built than they cost to operate, and which collectively
today deliver to the country about half as much energy as wood. So far
the damage bill is about $200 billion and the bills still to be paid
for cleaning up the mess--decommissioning, waste disposal, uranium mine
and mill leftovers, etc.-will probably cost about as much as has been
invested already, assuming we can find technically and politically
acceptable ways to do these jobs at all.[1]

The national commitment to nuclear power is the greatest industrial
disaster ever suffered in our history. (And now the same people who
brought us nuclear power are doing their best to scare us into buying
municipal solid waste incinerators--another disastrous technology from
every perspective.) To let Saddam Hussein frighten us into further
massive investments in these failed technologies would be to hand this
twobit dictator a real long-term victory. But that's precisely what
George Bush's 1991 energy plan says the President is bent on doing.
Will we never learn?

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Much of this paragraph is taken from Amory B. Lovins, "The Origins
of the Nuclear Power Fiasco," in John Byrne and Daniel Rich, editors,
THE POLITICS OF ENERGY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT; ENERGY POLICY STUDIES
VOL. 3 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1986), pgs. 7-34."

Get: Cynthia Pollock, DECOMMISSIONING: NUCLEAR POWER'S MISSING LINK
(Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute [1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW,
Washington, DC 20036; phone (202) 452-1999], 1986). $4.00.

[Diagram has been removed. "Dangerously Unpredictable." Source: U.S.
Council for Energy Awareness.]

Descriptor terms: george bush; policies; persian gulf; nuclear power
plants; radioactive waste; radioactivity; decommissioning; landfilling;
nv; wa; tx; nm; costs; epa; NEW YORK TIMES;