RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Return of the Nukes

Among the madnesses going about in the land in pursuit of the word jobs, jobs, jobs, is the return of nuclear-powered electricity. I live about 30 miles from a nuclear behemoth and you can see its steam rising from all over the county and a couple of counties besides.

Harmless steam, we’re told, unless you count financial recklessness as harmful.

The owners of the nuke plant, Ameren UE, want to build another “unit.” This one would have two steam stacks. They reel out numbers of jobs that would be created. Construction jobs, transportation jobs, and new families coming to the county to take these jobs. They dangle the numbers in front of our lawmakers like worms on a hook. I’ll leave it to you whether “worms” refers to the lawmakers or the bait.

And to build their new plant, Ameren asks to change Missouri law to allow them to raise rates to pay for the construction. At present, we have a law nicknamed “CWIP,” or “Construction while in progress” that protects consumers against building things that may never be used.

As opponents argue, fuel for the plants may become increasingly hard to get or very costly as the full impact of excavating and processing it becomes apparent. So changing the law means that consumers would pay for something that may not ever be operative.

I asked an Ameren spokesman why the corporation doesn’t issue stock to pay for its new nuclear plant. That’s the normal way corporations work, after all.

He replied that nobody would buy stock to build a new nuclear power plant. Well, there’s a clue! If it’s not good for stockholders that stand to make a profit, why is it good for ratepayers that stand to take a loss?

People know the environmental risks of building a plant that creates radioactive waste. Right now, the waste is stored on site at each of the plants in operation in the United States. That will probably be the final solution—tubs of waste in pools of water or stored in dry barrels all over the United States for the next 10,000 years when it can be declared harmless. The storage facilities would each require their own set of guards to prevent theft and their own set of environmental monitors to prevent seepage into the ground water.

I’m not particularly worried about environmental problems myself. I’ve lived a long and happy life and I’ve looked at the internet maps of what happened after Chernobyl. The waste didn’t particularly fall onto the land around the plant. In fact, it crossed the border into Belarus, destroying forever about 70% of their farmland. If we had a Chernobyl here, which Ameren assures us could never happen, I think the pollution would end up mostly in Illinois, so that would be OK.

But the comment of my spokesman was not about environment or longterm costs. It was about construction money.

There is one builder of nuclear plants, Areva, owned mostly by the French government. Areva is well-known for construction delays and cost overruns. Every new regulation, every new twist in the plans means a delay and why not? The real money is made when there are delays and overruns. The longer a project drags on, the longer the company thrives. And if consumers are paying the bills on their bills, it’s perfect!

At present, Areva is building two reactors. Finland’s is already three years behind schedule and $6.7 billion over budget. The second plant, in France, has an undetermined future, partly because claims that it will withstand a terrorist attack have not been proven. If some terrorist flies an airliner into a nuclear plant, the thinking goes, there’s no telling what kind of fallout will follow.

Areva is responsible, in France, for 210 abandoned radioactive sites. This includes uranium mines, recycling plants and processors with heaps of radioactive dirt for taxpayers to clean up. And, besides the sites in France, Areva has created a number of polluted sites in Africa.

Now here’s the cool part: The discoveries regarding alternative energy—solar and wind—are breathtaking. Entire factories are being converted to alternative energy. One Missouri town is powering the entire population with windmills. Tonight, I’ll plug my computer into the wall to recharge the battery but some computer user in the future might wind their computer once or twice a day to keep it going.

Or we might jump on exercise bikes every morning to make enough electricity to power our appliances all day. Or maybe we’ll drive cars with solar panels on top, park them in a sunny parking lot, and then plug them into our houses at night to run the furnace.

Visionaries imagine homes with wind turbines on the roof and lights that run on gravity. We have not begun to harness the power running in river currents or ocean tides.

It is an exciting time and if I can say one thing positive about the Ameren plan it is that my neighbors have all started taking alternative energy seriously. Even the most conservative are becoming comfortable with the concept of solar heat, hot water production, air conditioning.

Which would we rather do—ship our money to France to buy an expensive technology that may be obsolete or dangerous? Or invest in alternative power to fuel our own homes and businesses?

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2009

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