When Barack Obama was campaigning for president, he unveiled an eight-page energy plan with progressive gestures toward renewables and conservation, green jobs and green technologies. Then, on page six, Obama dropped the n-bomb: "Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our noncarbon-generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option."
Obama's Energy Secretary, Stephen Chu, echoed these sentiments during his confirmation hearings in January. Even while acknowledging nuclear energy's persistent and unresolved problems with funding and waste disposal, Chu told the Senate committee that the "nuclear industry is, should have to be, part of our energy mix in this century."
Nuclear, it appears, is now officially part of the solution, a potentially radical shift in consciousness 30 years after 1979's Three Mile Island disaster.
Beyond the valid safety arguments (see "New revelations about Three Mile Island disaster raise doubts over nuclear plant safety"), which pro- and anti-nuke contingents have argued bitterly about for four decades, there are other concerns about the nuclear solution: the exorbitant cost to build the plants, their financial risk—fraught with more uncertainty considering the country's recession, and the absence of a place to dispose of tons of dangerous radioactive waste.
No new nuclear power plants have been constructed in this country in more than 20 years. Yet as of February 2009, there were 22 applications for new and expanded plants before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—12 of them would be located in the South—but none has yet received permission to proceed with actual construction.
These plans to expand the nuclear power industry include the Carolinas. Progress Energy, which in January announced it wants to replace two coal-fired plants with nuclear plants in Florida, has applied to the NRC to add two reactors to the Shearon Harris plant in southern Wake County. However, according to Progress Energy spokesperson Julia Milstead, the company has not decided if they will build them.
The cost for two more reactors at Shearon Harris, Progress estimates, would be similar to that of the Florida project: $14 billion.
As for Duke Energy, it has filed an application with the NRC to build two new reactors at its facility in Gaffney, S.C., about an hour southwest of Charlotte. The cost for this project, according to Duke Energy spokesperson Rita Sipe, is estimated at $11 billion, but it could increase due to inflation over the project's long timetable—at least nine years.
"For any kind of power plant you build, you've got to look at your upfront capital costs and what it costs to run the plant," Sipe says. "For nuclear, the capital costs are somewhat higher, but the operating/ maintenance costs are lower and the fuel costs are lower."
Progress Energy, not surprisingly, is on the same page. "Nuclear power plants cost more upfront than some other forms of generation, but they provide a reliable, carbon-free resource that generates electricity for 40 to 60 years," says spokesman Mike Hughes.
However, nuclear fuel costs are lower compared to coal, peat, wood and natural gas—but not renewable energy sources. Nor do the overall costs include disposal or recycling (also known as reprocessing) of the radioactive waste. In the 1990s, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences studied the feasibility of recycling plutonium; a report concluded that 62,000 tons of spent fuel would cost $50 billion to $100 billion.
In other words, both companies' central claim is that nuclear energy's high initial investment is a long-term investment that will be cost-efficient over the long haul. And we're certainly talking about a long haul: Neither of the companies' planned nuclear expansions, if completed, would even go online before 2018.
The operative words are "if completed": As Jim Warren of NC Waste Awareness and Reduction Network points out, the licensing and design problems that have plagued the so-called "second wave" of nuclear power plants in America and have prevented their completion. Under the new Construction Work in Progress guidelines signed into state law in 2007 as part of Senate Bill 3, the bulk of the costs for these proposed plants will be passed on to consumers—even if the plants are never completed.
"Taxpayers and ratepayers have been forced to bail out the nuclear power industry twice in the past 30 years, and if Congress gives the industry the massive loan guarantees it wants, we likely will have to cough up hundreds of billions of dollars to do it yet again," wrote Ellen Vancko, the nuclear energy and climate change project manager at the Union for Concerned Citizens, in a report on federal loan guarantees commissioned by the group. "The industry has gone from promising electricity 'too cheap to meter' to being too costly to consider."
Both Vancko and Warren are referring to what Forbes called in 1985 "the largest managerial disaster in business history," the financial collapse of the first wave of nuclear power plant construction due to delays, overbuilding and skyrocketing expenses.
A 2006 Business Week analysis titled "Nuclear power's missing fuel: Why Wall Street is skeptical of backing a new round of proposed nuke plants" detailed the fears of big investors that this managerial disaster could be repeated in the new wave; many analysts believe that due to the heavy risks and high potential liabilities, the private sector will be largely unwilling to invest in nuclear at all.
What's more, the Government Accountability Office, the investigational arm of Congress, estimates half of all U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantees to nuclear power providers are defaulted on.
"Congress should think twice about pushing the industry to invest in plants that Wall Street and even the industry itself say are too risky to finance on their own," Vancko says.
Warren also argues that expanding our electricity-generating capacity would distract from the more pressing action needed to combat climate change. "To pour billions of dollars and years into trying to build nuclear plants is crazy: You can get between eight to 12 to 15 times more greenhouse gas reduction by pursuing energy efficiency, cogeneration and other technologies." The decade-long timeframe necessary for the design, approval and construction of nuclear plants, Warren argues, renders them simply too slow to help us with the climate emergency.
The Obama administration's recent mothballing of the proposed Yucca Mountain site leaves the problem of storage of spent nuclear fuel unanswered as well. Currently, says Sipe of Duke Energy, the utility's nuclear plants—like every such plant in the country—stores its spent fuel on-site, hoping that eventually the material will be able to be recycled. "We view it as a resource," Sipe says. "The fuel is safe and secure where it is now. The intention was not to leave it at the sites long term, but it's OK to leave it there."
Twenty years of spent fuel is stored in concrete-and-steel water-filled chambers at Shearon Harris, a method that will be used until the end of the original operating license in 2026. Progress Energy then will switch to what is called "dry storage" for the plant's remaining 20 years of operation.
Both companies contend that the material is safe where it is, but Warren is unconvinced. "They do not have a solution for this deadly, high-level radioactive waste, of which we have 70,000 tons around the U.S. that has already been created," he says. "There's a lot of talk that spent fuel is dangerous for thousands of years, and that's correct. But the fact is that the spent fuel at Shearon Harris represents a clear and present danger, whether by accident or by act of malice."
Those security concerns are valid. In 2007, the NRC fined Progress Energy $65,000 for security violations.
There is no long-term solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear-generated waste, merely the hope that something will be worked out. Those hopes may dwindle further in the face of what has happened to France, once vaunted as the nation that did nuclear "right." First, French attempts to build new reactors in France and Finland has been financially disastrous, much like that of the American nuclear industry in the 1980s. The Finnish Olkiluoto reactor is now 55 percent over budget, while the Flamanville project in France has exceeded its budget by $1 billion less than a year into construction.
But more important, claims that France had perfected the recycling of nuclear waste are coming under scrutiny. Critics of the French system point to the reprocessing plant at La Hague, which has been discharging 100 million gallons of radioactive waste annually into the English Channel, as well as similarly radioactive gas releases from La Hague. And the French nuclear industry, despite reprocessing, nonetheless has generated 10,000 tons of spent fuel rods like those that now sit in "temporary" storage at Shearon Harris.
Meanwhile, delays and design difficulties plague the nuclear industry in the United States as well. Westinghouse, which is providing the design specifications for many of the nuclear plants under application at the NRC, missed a deadline in August 2008 for the submission of design modifications to the board. Due to a pattern of such delays, it is unlikely the Westinghouse design will be approved before 2011.
With the projected timeline for U.S. nuclear expansions lasting at least a decade, these arguments (both legal and ideological) will undoubtedly continue for years to come. Meanwhile, there's still the question of what to do about energy, with both oil shortages and catastrophic climate change still looming on the horizon. "My greatest hope," Warren says, "is that we will stop fighting over these new plants and these companies will turn to clean energy and efficiency."