Stepping Back from the Nuclear Precipice

Before the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster and the debt ceiling debate, the nuclear power generating industry was supposedly experiencing a renaissance in the U.S.—including proposed government facilitation of construction of new nuclear power plants for the first time in over 30 years.

But, a recent settlement of a thirteen-year-old dispute brought the tribulations of the nuclear industry back in focus. A $100M payment to Xcel Energy is part of a cash settlement from the federal government for failing to follow through on a 1982 agreement with utilities—an agreement to remove spent fuel by the end of January 1998.

Of course, the reason for the failure is that there is, as yet, no national repository for spent nuclear waste. And, storage of spent fuel is just one of many problems facing nuclear power.

Xcel intends to distribute proceeds to its customers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, and Michigan—taxpayer subsidized compensation for inherent problems with nuclear energy.

This is nothing new—the nuclear power industry wouldn’t exist without massive taxpayer subsidies. A report titled “Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies” released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in February highlights the impractically of nuclear power from an economic perspective:

"Despite the profoundly poor investment experience with taxpayer subsidies to nuclear plants over the past 50 years, the objectives of these new subsidies are precisely the same as the earlier subsidies: to reduce the private cost of capital for new nuclear reactors and to shift the long-term, often multi-generational risks of the nuclear fuel cycle away from investors. And once again, these subsidies to new reactors—whether publicly or privately owned—could end up exceeding the value of the power produced…"

Additionally, nuclear power utilities’ liability is limited by government act—which means in case of extensive damages, taxpayers are, again, left holding the bag for the greatest portion of compensations.

But, as recently demonstrated in Japan, consequences of much greater impact are in play.

Even 25 years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, estimates of the final human death toll vary. The World Health Organization estimates the current toll to be 9,000 while Greenpeace predicts the eventual number will be 93,000. A controversial 2009 report put the number at 1,000,000.

A 2009 study led by the French National Center for Scientific Research, observed a marked decline in animal life and an accompanying increase in deformities among survivors within a 30 km radius of the Chernobyl disaster site. These findings deflated earlier claims that animal populations had rebounded, and indicate that higher human death estimates may be more realistic.

Plutonium, a highly toxic (when inhaled) carcinogen, has a half-life of over 24,000 years (the time it takes to lose half its radioactivity). Plutonium “hot particles” were dispersed, along with a host of other radioactive materials throughout Japan’s agricultural region as a result of multiple explosions at Fukushima-Daiichi.

Of course, the final devastation in Japan—like Chernobyl—will not be known for generations. But, Chris Busby, a chemical physicist and scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, has predicted 200,000 new cancers will occur within a 100km radius of Fukushima-Daiichi within the next 50 years, with about half within the next 10 years.

The point being that the “one strike and you’re out” nature of nuclear accidents makes them a profound risk to large populations--whether located in California, New York or Minnesota. And, that’s why Xcel Energy, as well as other utilities should begin the move away from nuclear power as have utilities in Germany and Japan.

It’s also imperative that the President and members of Minnesota’s House and Senate delegation reverse previous commitments to including nuclear power as a possible alternative to high carbon energy sources. Continuing this failed technology makes no sense—economically or morally.

Posted in Economic Development | Related Topics: Energy  Regulation  Community Safety 

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