Nuclear Costs Raise Questions

The momentum is building for a rebirth of nuclear power. And that should make anyone who values the health of our environment or is concerned about the size of the federal debt cringe.

President Barack Obama announced in February that his administration had approved $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two nuclear reactors in Georgia that would be the first new plants built since the 1970s.

Supporters of nuclear power view it as the best alternative energy source available as we attempt to move away from the fossil fuels that generate greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change. They say advances made over the last three decades have made nuclear power safer and that, while upfront costs are high, it is relatively cheap to produce energy.

We’ve heard all these arguments before from the industry. But the reality is that a nuclear energy industry will require massive subsidies just to get off the ground — and that does not take into account the huge bureaucratic structure that will be needed to ensure plant safety and security or the costs of disposing of what are some of the most dangerous wastes on the planet.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has dubbed the loan guarantees — which were first approved under the Bush administration — a new taxpayer bailout waiting to happen.

Nuclear energy, the UCS says, is likely to increase the cost of moving away from fossil fuels and cutting the nation’s emission of greenhouse gases because the cost of building plants is so high.

The US Department of Energy estimated in 2002 that the average plant would cost between $2 billion and $3 billion, according to the UCS — not exactly chump change.

“However,” the UCS writes in a nuclear power fact sheet, “developers applying for DOE loan guarantees in October 2008 for 21 proposed nuclear plants estimated that their costs — including financing costs and expected increases in construction costs — would total $188 billion. That translates into an average of $9 billion per plant.” Or four and a half times the original estimates.

That’s why the UCS says that the “economics of nuclear power alone could be the most difficult hurdle to surmount” and that a nuclear power resurgence that “relies on new federal loan guarantees would also risk repeating costly bailouts of the industry financed by taxpayers and ratepayers twice before.”

Redirecting our energy policy toward more sustainable sources will take public investment. The question is where those investments should be placed. Do we continue to subsidize fossil fuels — both with money and favorable treatment — as we have for generations, subsidies that have allowed the coal and oil industries to dominate the energy sector of our economy? Do we hand the money over to the nuclear industry and hope it can help us reduce emissions without our having to do anything else?

The UCS says there are alternatives, which include investments in renewable energy sources (wind, solar, biofuels, etc.) and energy efficiency. Its “Climate 2030 Blueprint” envisions cutting greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50% in 20 years while also saving households $465 billion annually on their energy bills and gasoline use.

The blueprint, of course, envisions an amalgamation of smaller efforts that lead to better designed motor vehicles and trains, houses, offices and other buildings, more efficient manufacturing processes, small- and large-scale solar and wind generators and other new sources and new ways of saving energy.

These are much more difficult to sell to a public seeking a magic potion and unwilling to make more than token sacrifices. Nuclear - like the clean-coal fable being sold by the coal industry - can be marketed as the latest elixir to cure our energy woes.

“We need to prioritize the cleanest, cheapest, safest, and fastest ways to reduce emissions and nuclear power is neither clean, cheap, nor fast, nor safe,” Carl Pope of the Sierra Club said in a press release after the president announced the loan guarantees. “Retrofitting our homes and commercial buildings would result in significantly greater emissions reductions almost immediately — at far less cost — and would also cut energy bills in the long-run.”

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. E-mail; blog

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010

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