The Truth About Nuclear Power

IS THE OFT-PROMISED NUCLEAR RENAISSANCE FINALLY UNDERWAY in the United States? A few electric utilities and the small but powerful group of nuclear industry cheerleaders certainly think so, and they are doing everything they can to influence key politicians by throwing millions of dollars at the political process. Other major voices in the business media and on Wall Street are either not so sure or are strongly against the technology.

With no new reactors having come online since 1996 and with the rapid collapse of new construction in the 1980s, a nuclear revival would indeed represent a return from the dead for the troubled industry. Like a cat with nine lives (and endless government subsidies), the nuclear industry is being marketed worldwide by a ubiquitous public relations campaign funded by a handful of companies who stand to gain tens of billions if they can talk an appropriately cautious public into buying this ill-fated technology.

The bottom line question: If once burned, should the utilities and the public buy a new round of power plants from nuclear salesmen? The best way to evaluate this is to rely on the sound business principle that places high value on accurate projections and past performance. The commercial nuclear industry has been around for half a century, so the prudent approach would be to look at the industry’s track record.

When we do, we find a string of broken promises, product failures, massive subterranean leaks of liquid nuclear waste, cost overruns, overly optimistic projections, stranded debts, bankruptcies, bond defaults and a mountain of toxic waste that grows daily and cannot be removed for safe disposal. This dismal track record includes a series of catastrophic accidents and near-accidents, the most memorable of which are the 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

When President Nixon declared Project Energy Independence in 1973 during the first Arab oil boycotts, he promised an ambitious nuclear power program that would lead to 1,000 reactors deployed across the nation by the end of the 20th century. Only 104 commercial reactors are in operation within the U.S. today. Of these, 48 have already been granted license extensions that are typically for 20 years beyond their original “useful life” cycle, and utilities have already filed or plan to request extensions for another 33 plants.

In 1954, Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), issued the now infamous prediction that nuclear power would provide “electricity too cheap to meter.” In reality, nuclear power has turned out to be the most expensive form of electricity ever foisted off on the American public.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission claimed that the plants were safe, and the risk of a catastrophic accident was too slim to calculate. Yet as early as 1970, the Three Mile Island reactor safety systems failed, and the plant came within 30 minutes of a meltdown, leading to an evacuation of the area around the plant.

In 1986, multiple explosions at the Chernobyl reactor in the former Soviet Union blew off the reactor containment lid, spewing more than half of the radioactive materials thousands of feet into the air, so that the radioactive isotopes circled the Northern Hemisphere. The area around Chernobyl has been declared a “dead zone,” and radioactive vegetables are still showing up in the Ukrainian markets today. While the death toll can be disputed, it has been estimated as high as 60,000 and still growing.

The government promised that there would be a long-term solution for the storage of high-level radioactive waste, primarily from spent fuel rods. As of November 2006, the Department of Energy’s proposed long-term waste depository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, is mired in scientific controversy, legal challenges and a growing admission by all concerned that it won’t prove large enough to contain the waste being created by existing reactors — let alone deal with the radioactive waste from new ones.

Based on this dismal performance, nuclear power remains a flawed technology plagued by faulty economics. From a business perspective, we must advice, caveat emptor! Buyer beware! This time the burden of proof must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the industry and its advocates. Before the utilities and the public rush to join the nuclear revival, they should critically examine past performance and demand experimental proof for claims that this generation of nuclear plants will be economically viable, climate-friendly and accident-proof.

The industry should also be required to publicly calculate the cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity from a new nuclear plant, including all subsidies; the full cost of all waste disposal for a 10,000-year period, with such waste required to be kept out of the biosphere; and the full cost of “entombing” or decommissioning the reactor. Should such a calculation be made, it would reveal the true cost of nuclear energy as many times more expensive than existing, commercially available renewable sources.

Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D.
Rinaldo S. Brutoco, J.D.
James A. Cusumano, Ph.D.