On Nov. 21, there was a radiation leak at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., less than 100 miles north of Baltimore up I-83. One hundred and fifty workers were evacuated, and 20 people were exposed to radiation.
The leak didn't get a lot of attention here, but Marylanders should care - not only because Three Mile Island is not very far from us but also because Calvert Cliffs in Southern Maryland may be the site of the first new nuclear power plant to be ordered since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Electricité de France (EDF), the largest merchant of nuclear power in Europe, has purchased an almost 50 percent share in Constellation's nuclear holdings and will try to build a new nuclear power plant in our state with millions of dollars in federal loan guarantees.
Last week's leak is the latest reminder that nuclear power, despite its proponents' claims, can be dirty and unsafe. And there are disturbing questions about EDF's safety record. Last month, it was accused of dumping more than 1,500 tons of spent fuel near a town in Siberia, where the waste was discovered in metal cans. EDF claims it is sending the material to Russia to be "reprocessed." Environmental experts quoted in Britain's Telegraph newspaper say that 13 percent of spent fuel from its plants is shipped over there, and it is "really dirty stuff."
EDF has other problems in France, where 15 of 58 reactors it owns are currently off-line. As reported this month in the Economist, one investment bank attributes the company's trouble with reliability in electricity production to under-investment and large maintenance costs from EDF's aging nuclear power fleet. Another expert quoted in the article commented that more attention was being given to international expansion and less to local French operations. One site, Tricastin, has repeatedly been in the news for leaks and mishaps - as it was again two weeks ago, when its Unit #2 had to stop refueling because the fuel assembly got stuck, just as it had last year. Also last year, there was a 30,000-liter spill of a uranium solution that contaminated two nearby rivers for a time. Another event at Tricastin last year caused the low-level radioactive contamination of 45 workers.
Reuters reported Nov. 3 that British, Finnish and French nuclear safety bodies jointly issued a criticism and demanded changes in the security systems in the new European pressurized reactor designed by AREVA and used by EDF in its new plants. These concerns are over "insufficient independence between day-to-day systems and emergency systems." This is the system that EDF plans to use at Calvert Cliffs.
The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that EDF's debt will grow from $42 billion euro to $50 billion euro by 2013, and that EDF might have to raise $27 billion euro to meet its nuclear obligations. The Economist reported Nov. 19 that its debt "stands at $37 billion euro ($53 billion) and could rise to $65 billion euro by 2017-2018."
All that debt comes with a cost to consumers. Nuclear power in France from old nuclear power plants costs about 4.3 cents per kilowatt-hour; given cost overruns, new nuclear power can cost anywhere from 7 cents to 10 cents per kwh.
In the current issue of Scientific American, Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi propose a technically feasible, clean and efficient energy future from wind, water and sun. They note that wind - at 7 cents per kwh and projected to drop to 4 cents by 2020 - is getting cheaper than new nuclear, which is growing more expensive. In addition, wind is 25 times cleaner because of carbon emissions caused by mining, manufacturing and transporting associated with nuclear power.
These recent reports recount worker and environmental contamination, mishandling of nuclear waste, lack of reliability in producing electricity and fiscally risky policies at EDF. As laid out in Scientific American, as well as in the works of Maryland's own clean energy scholar, Arjun Makihani, from the Takoma-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, EDF's biggest problem may be that it is marketing an old, expensive and dirty solution to our energy crisis.
Three Mile Island reminds us that when there is a mishap at a nuclear power plant - unlike at wind, water and solar plants - what leaks out is radioactive.
Dr. Gwen L. DuBois, an internist at Sinai Hospital, is a member Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her e-mail is gdu firstname.lastname@example.org.