President Bush is promoting the use of nuclear power plants to generate electricity. It seems a political choice. Investing in nuclear power plants can be attempted only by very large corporations, of the kind that are in his support base. They belong to a very exclusive big-money club, and there are many billions of dollars at stake. But to belong, one also has to be willing to forget Three Mile Island, to forget market economics, nuclear proliferation, radioactive waste and, in particular, to forget nuclear terrorism.
The nuclear industry, unlike, say, the automobile industry, is not a self-sufficient, commercial industry. From its inception in the late 1950s, the commercial nuclear-power enterprise in this country developed a dual personality, as it were. It is schizophrenic. It had to be, and is entirely, dependent on agencies of the federal government. The reason is that what makes a nuclear power plant "nuclear" is its fissionable fuel, and nuclear fuel is radioactive. Because radioactive materials are toxic, and concerns of national security, the government today has to be a party to every phase of nuclear power generation, from beginning to end.
Consequently, the "first personality" of the nuclear industry is that of a compliant, highly dependent and regulated industry. The federal government manufactures the industry's radioactive fuel and lends it to a power plant for temporary use. The government has to certify and license the detailed design of each power plant, approve each site, supervise and certify each construction detail, certify fuel loading and initial operation, certify and monitor the power plant's operating procedures and personnel, and finally, the government has to reclaim the irradiated fuel when it is no longer useful for electric power production — that is, when it is considered spent.
The "second personality" of the nuclear industry is similar to that of any other industry in a market economy. The ground rules are simple: As a business necessity, a nuclear power plant has to be insured, and to prove itself profitable and economically competitive against other technologies in the market for producing electricity.
Here you meet two fatal shortcomings of the nuclear industry: No insurance company has ever agreed to insure a nuclear power plant. A nuclear plant is too risky to insure. Congress had to step in and pass a law that limits the owner's liability (called The Price Anderson Act of 1957. You and I, dear taxpayer, are the industry's insurance). And regarding competitiveness, Nuclear News, the American Nuclear Society's magazine of March 2005, had this to say:
"Nuclear advocates have made it clear in recent months that even if all regulatory matters were settled ... the actual ordering and building of new power reactors would depend heavily at first on financial incentives to reduce the cost burden to those organizations that build the first plants."
So much for competitiveness.
Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, operating nuclear power plants include a huge new vulnerability. Because of insurmountable safety and technical challenges, and public resistance to siting of a federal repository for radioactive wastes, the government has failed to reclaim spent nuclear fuel from any of the 103 operating nuclear power plants. Consequently, spent fuel continues to be "temporarily" stored at each plant site, by the plant owner, in water-filled, spent-fuel pools. These pools are now recognized as a nuclear terrorism hazard.
On March 28, the Washington Post revealed that the National Academy of Sciences completed a study commissioned by Congress, and in a classified report raised concerns about terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools.
The existence of the NAS report was made public only when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates nuclear power plants and is responsible for certifying their safety, responded to the NAS report with a defensive, but unclassified, letter that disagreed with its findings.
On April 6, the NAS released a declassified version of its report, titled: "Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report." In the section called "Summary for Congress" the report states:
"(1) Spent fuel pools are necessary at all operating nuclear power plants to store recently discharged fuel.
(2) The committee [of the NAS] judges that successful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are possible.
(3) If an attack leads to a propagating zirconium cladding fire, it could result in the release of large amounts of radioactive material.
(4) Additional analyses are needed to understand more fully the vulnerabilities and consequences of events ..."
The report uses declassified, guarded language. It raises new doubts and unanswered questions about specific nuclear terrorist attacks, and the release of radioactivity with possibly devastating consequences. Yes, they should indeed be "understood more fully."
In summary: It is a fact that in the last 50 years or so, electricity-generating nuclear power plants have been tested for competitiveness in the U.S. marketplace and have failed the test. In spite of ongoing government regulatory support and incentives, no new nuclear power plants have been ordered by industry in the last 32 years. Apart from failing the market test, the industry has failed to resolve the public's concerns about radioactive materials.
Rejection of nuclear power in the United States is the result of failure to resolve conflicts between the business objectives of privately owned corporations, and the extraordinary public safeguarding and security needs (including nuclear terrorism) necessitated by the use of fissionable materials and relegated to government. Our energy future is elsewhere.
Meir Carasso who holds a Ph.D. in engineering, worked for the U.S. and California governments and in private industry. He lives in Boulder.
Copyright 2005, The Daily Camera and the E.W. Scripps Company