The reactor disaster in Fukushima is so fresh in our memories that it may seem incomprehensible to think that the history of that tragic (and still unfolding) event in Japan could ever be rewritten and distorted. But history tells us that the nuclear power industry is very adept at revising the facts about every major reactor disaster.
Consider the Three Mile Island (TMI) reactor crisis in the United States. Thanks to years of industry propaganda, many Americans now assume that the panic that followed in the wake of this near-disaster situation derailed the nuclear power industry in the United States, halting its forward momentum in its prime. (Just watch: If the industry falters after Fukushima, it will once again pin the blame on “unreasoning panic” by the public.)
Panic was not the issue after the Three Mile Island. In reality, the U.S. nuclear power industry was already dead in the water by the time of the TMI accident. The culprit was not unreasoning panic on the part of the public. What killed nuclear power more than a quarter of a century ago was cold, hard economics: Nuclear power was just too expensive to build.
Remember the promises made about nuclear power?
First it was “atoms for peace.” But we now know that our nuclear arsenal was the priority. Then it was “too cheap to meter.” But the truth is that nuclear power has been a financial fiasco, declared by Forbes in 1980 as the worst financial disaster in business history.
Little has changed since then, including the nuclear power industry’s enormous lobbying influence and public relations clout. While Wall Street continues to take a pass on financing risky reactors, President Obama and bipartisan Congressional supporters continue to cheerlead the so-called “nuclear renaissance” even as the worst industrial disaster in history continues to play out in Japan. The possibility of an accident, we were told, was next to impossible. But we’ve had three major incidents in 30 years and numerous near misses.
Now “clean” is the mantra in support of nuclear power for politicians and environmentalists alike who think only of reducing CO2. Is nuclear power a clean energy source? Not so much. The evidence paints quite a different story: routine, low-level, radioactive emissions, tritium leaks into water supplies, thousands of tons of fish each year annihilated at water intakes, thermal pollution of lakes and streams, tens of thousands of tons of extremely toxic high-level nuclear waste generated with thousands more to come.
The industry began trumpeting the “nuclear renaissance” in 2003. Yet, not one nuclear unit has been built in the United States. The average price for one reactor increased from an estimated $3 billion in 2002 to $10 billion in 2010 — not including the inevitable cost overruns that have plagued nuclear power construction since the beginning.
In 2009 Citigroup Global Markets wrote: “Three of the risks faced by (nuclear plant) developers — construction, power price and operational — are so large and variable that individually they could bring even the largest utility to its knees.” This analysis is playing itself out now.
In Florida, Progress Energy announced in 2006 that a reactor would cost $6 billion in 2006. By 2010 it was estimated to be over $22 billion.
The price of the French nuclear power plant project in Olkiluoto, Finland has doubled and faces a costly four-year delay. Duke Energy has petitioned the North Carolina public utility commission for rate recovery of over $400 million just to design two nuclear plants. Duke, in North Carolina, and AEP, in Indiana, are pushing legislation to further shift design, construction and operational costs of nuclear plants to ratepayers.
In the meantime, the chronic and seemingly intractable problems for nuclear power continue. In December of 2009, Mark Cooper, a nuclear expert, said that 90 percent of the plants applied for at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had been canceled or faced delays.
We’ve been down this road before … and it is truly the road to financial ruin. Ratepayers were saddled with an estimated $200 to $300 billion in cost overruns from completed nuclear plants from the 1960s through the 1980s; nearly $50 billion for abandoned plants. Due to industry whining during the deregulation craze in the 1990s, claiming that nuclear power couldn’t compete in deregulated markets because of the high cost of nuclear power, ratepayers once again bailed out the nuclear industry to the tune of $40 billion.
So, how does nuclear power essentially defy the financial law of gravity and continue to be touted by indefatigable boosters?
According to the Institute for Southern Studies the industry has spent an estimated $640 million on lobbying. The goal has been and continues to be not to reduce financial risk but to shift it to taxpayers and ratepayers.
What have we learned after 60 years with nuclear power? The bottom line comes down to this: Nuclear power is an extraordinarily expensive and dangerous way to boil water. Don’t take our word for it, just ask the people in Fukushima.
Pam Solo is the president and founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute (www.CivilSocietyInstitute.org) and facilitator of the Citizens Lead for Energy Action Now (www.TheCLEAN.org). Grant Smith is a senior energy policy analyst to the Civil Society Institute and former executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, where he worked for 29 years.