The Nurture of Nuclear
Free enterprise? States’ rights? Public opinion? These concepts seem to bounce off the nuclear power industry like a pebble tossed at a reactor containment vessel.
Remember the brouhaha about $563 million in Obama administration loan guarantees toSolyndra, the solar panel manufacturer that went belly up last fall? Neither President Obama nor Republicans in Congress have voiced opposition to an expected $8.3 billion Energy Department guarantee to help the Southern Company, a utility giant, build nuclear reactors in Georgia.
Pressed to respond to the comparison, Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida and chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, explained that the loan guarantee for nuclear power plant construction was for a “proven industry that has been successful and has established a record.”
The nuclear power industry has certainly established a record – for terrifying accidents. Most recently, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan led to the evacuation of 90,000 residents who have yet to return home and to the resignation of the prime minister. It prompted the German government to begin phasing out all nuclear generation of electricity by 2022. Yet the industry has proved remarkably successful at garnering public support in the United States, ranging from public insurance against accident liability to loan guarantees. An article last year in The Wall Street Journal observed that subsidies per kilowatt hour during its initial stages of development far exceeded those provided to solar and wind energy technologies.
According to a detailed report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, subsidies to the nuclear fuel cycle have often exceeded the value of the power produced. Buying power on the open market and giving it away for free would have been less costly.
Heightened concerns about safety have driven recent cost estimates even higher, scaring off most private investors. Travis Hoium, an analyst who has written extensively about the industry on the investment Web site The Motley Fool, calls nuclear power a dying business. In an article, “Warren Buffett Wants a Subsidy From You,” he clearly explains recent efforts to shift risk from investors to ratepayers by allowing utilities to charge for construction in advance.
Investor interest in nuclear-generated electricity has declined partly as a result of the boom in shale gas extraction. But energy sources that don’t increase carbon emissions are also playing a major role, with wind, hydropower and other renewables projected to provide about 30 percent of expected additions to power generation capacity in the United States between 2010 and 2035.
Meanwhile, 23 aging nuclear power plants continue to operate in the United States, including some similar in design to those that blew in Fukushima, like Vermont Yankee, close to where I live in western Massachusetts. Like Indian Point 2, just 24 miles north of New York City, Vermont Yankee has reached the end of its projected lifetime operation, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission favors extending its license, despite strong local opposition.
Vermont’s governor and its legislature have called for a shutdown. But a federal district court ruled that Vermont’s efforts were “improperly motivated” by a concern for safety, which lies under the jurisdiction of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. While the state appeals its case in higher court, Vermont Yankee continues to operate.
On March 22, more than 1,000 people marched in protest to the plant, and about 130 engaging in civil disobedience were arrested, including the stalwart 93-year-old activist Frances Crowe.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 44 percent of Americans favor promotion of nuclear power while 69 percent favor increasing federal funding for research on wind, solar and hydrogen energy technology.
So why do we continue to nurture nuclear power so much more generously than safer and less costly sources of electricity?