In the wake of the apocalyptic nightmare at Fukushima, the multi-trillion-dollar global nuclear power industry is looking over the abyss at a long-overdue extinction.
But the issue is far from decided. Japan's horrifying catastrophe has sent the industry's spin machine into overdrive. Hell-bent on minimizing the dangers of this unprecedented disaster, we've been shown the script of what reactor-backers are willing to say and do to save themselves.
It is not a pretty picture. It focuses on the assertion that there are safe doses of radiation, and that atomic energy has harmed few, if any. Three Mile Island "hurt no one." There were few casualties at Chernobyl. And Fukushima's long-term damage will be minimal.
Atomic apologists argue that only nuclear power can fill our long-term "base load," that renewables are of no real consequence, and our choice is between more nukes and more coal.
Yet the nuclear industry faces significant hurdles in cost and construction lead time, two inescapable factors that are on the brink of killing atomic electricity-generation.
The end is not guaranteed. New reactor construction cannot proceed in the United States without huge federal handouts. There are no private sources willing to fund additional U.S. projects. Wall Street has only been keen on atomic energy when subsidies and ironclad guarantees have been available.
No reactor ordered in this country since 1974 has been completed. In that year, Richard Nixon promised 1,000 atomic reactors licensed to operate by the year 2000. Today there are 104.
There are many reasons those 896 reactors went missing. Number one is the fact that the No Nukes movement stopped the industry from gouging from the government the trillion or more dollars it would have taken to build that fleet.
Local and national public opposition slowed and cancelled many projects and created a political atmosphere in which it is impossible for the industry to do what was done in France. There the industry established a radioactive form of national socialism. It is amusing to watch American "free- market advocates" go rhapsodic about the French nuclear industry, when in fact it is owned, insured, operated, monitored, and regulated by the government.
Here the government doesn't own the reactors, but it does own their liabilities. When atomic power was introduced, utilities refused to invest unless Congress would insulate them from the damage caused by an accident. So the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 required reactor owners to establish a pay-out pool of $540 million: the industry's liability for an accident whose potential was estimated to be capable of destroying a land mass the size of Pennsylvania.
The protection has been periodically renewed by Congress. Today the pool has grown to $12.6 billion. As Fukushima has demonstrated, that's a fraction of the potential damage from a disaster at one or more American reactors. Preliminary estimates of the cost for radioactive cleanup at Fukushima mean little, in part because they're intertwined with destruction from quake and tsunami. And the accident is far from over. Radioactive emissions seem to be worsening, and five weeks after the earthquake the level of radioactive iodine 131 was 6,500 times the legal limit in the Pacific waters near the plant. Should such fallout occur from a U.S. reactor, beyond the $12.6 billion pool, liability would rest with the victims and the taxpayers.
Without government cash to build reactors that would produce electricity once billed as "too cheap to meter," the industry has stalled. In recent months, even before Fukushima, local voters have begun to force the shutdown of operating reactors. In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin was elected on a pledge to shut the Yankee reactor. A deal cut by its owner, Entergy, and the state legislature requires official approval for operations beyond March 2012. In New York, newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo is focused on shutting down Indian Point, 35 miles north of Manhattan.
But as fans of monster movies know, there comes a moment when the beast has been slain, all are celebrating … and then … BAM! It comes back to life.
That resurrection has come to be known as the "nuclear renaissance," which again rests on federal handouts. The Bush administration provided $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to underwrite the beginning of a new generation of reactors. In 2007, with former Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), the "senator from nuclear power," the industry attempted to get $50 billion in additional loan guarantees.
But a grassroots movement arose with help from a NukeFree.org effort, led by singers Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash. With a website, a YouTube video, a petition drive that gathered 120,000 signatures, and a lobby day in October 2007, Domenici's $50 billion proposal was defeated.
In 2008, 2009, 2010 and thus far in 2011, similar efforts by the industry to grab federal money have been denied, which is remarkable because, as reported by an investigative team at American University, proponents of reactors have spent some $645 million in the last decade lobbying Congress for more subsidies. For an underfunded grassroots movement to beat a campaign that spent on average $65 million a year (excluding what was spent on media) is miraculous.
Two major factors have contributed.
One is the soaring cost of the reactors. Three years ago, cost projections for a new reactor were as low as $2 billion to $3 billion. Today, with barely a shovel having been turned, they are in the range of $10 billion to $11 billion, and moving relentlessly and rapidly higher. Design and safety considerations coming out of Fukushima are sure to send that figure up even more. A Texas project that was to be bankrolled by the Japanese almost certainly won't happen now.
The scientific staff at the Nuclear Regulatory Agency — a captive regulatory agency whose budget is provided by the industry — has raised concerns about new designs undergoing constant and often confusing changes proposed by the utilities building the plants, which also increases costs.
The other major factor that helped defeat the loan guarantees is the plunging cost of renewables. When the No Nukes movement began, reactor opponents were forced to argue that "sometime in the future" such green technologies as wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, ocean thermal, and bio-fuels would be cost competitive.
That time has come. The solartopian vision of a green-powered Earth has, in the last few years, become economically viable within a free-market model. With photovoltaic cells leading the way, and wind power following close behind, the projected price for green-generated electricity has fallen into the range of nuclear power and has drawn closer to coal. A constant stream of technological breakthroughs in renewables and energy efficiency shows every sign of continuing to accelerate past the tipping point, where what has until now been known as "alternative" technology takes over the mainstream.
With that has come a green industry with political clout of its own, in both lobbying power and job creation. For every month that passes without new reactors coming on line, the renewable-energy lobby gains an increasing ability to flex its muscles in Congress and the marketplace.
Will these factors be sufficient to prevent a renaissance capable of reviving the nuclear industry?
The nuclear renaissance got its most recent big break in 2010, when Barack Obama put up $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for two reactors in Georgia — the first money from the $18.5 billion set aside by Bush to actually go to a reactor project. (Another plant is in the works in South Carolina.)
Serious legal and technical issues have been raised about the loan guarantees. That did not stop Obama from staging a news event to announce the first new reactor projects to break ground in decades. State regulators are forcing ratepayers to fund construction. If the reactors never generate a kilowatt of electricity, the public will still foot the bill.
WASTE NOT—The public always foots the bill. After half a century and more than $10 billion, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada has failed, for technical and political reasons. Consequently, more than 60,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste is stored at reactor sites across the U.S. None of the world's reactor operators have a safe solution for storage of the most lethal substance ever created by human beings. Almost all of it sits onsite, alongside more than 430 reactors worldwide.
But Fukushima has belied the industry line that in the absence of permanent sites waste can be safely stored onsite. Onsite storage of high-level waste in spent-fuel pools at each of six stricken Fukushima reactors, plus a seventh common pool, has created a fiery nightmare.
Spent rods were exposed to air, allowing zirconium alloy cladding to ignite, releasing huge quantities of radiation while endangering the complex cooling systems on which the entire facility depends.
When the quake destroyed critical pump and piping networks, water from the tsunami created short circuits and ruined electrical systems.
Hydrogen explosions at two or more of the reactors may have compromised containment domes, while a crack in at least one reactor pressure vessel indicates a dangerous level of damage to the structures meant to keep the cores intact.
Meanwhile, some of the spent fuel rods sit five stories in the air. They were put there largely to make it easier to move used rods out of the core and directly into the elevated pools. But given the damage done by the quake, tsunami and mechanical failures inside the plants, getting cooling water to them has proven extremely difficult. Some of the rods might have fallen into melting reactor cores. The disaster defies description and won't be fully understood for decades.
Yet the industry continues to blame its waste problem on opponents they claim have prevented a viable disposal site from being established, not only in the U.S., but in every country where reactors operate.
Fukushima has also raised the specter of an airborne stream of radiation killing people all over the world. This includes the United States, where fallout was detected on the West Coast within days of the disaster in Japan, followed by reports of iodine 131 in milk and water from Maine to Florida. Cesium has been found on vegetables in Vermont, though it's unclear whether it came from Fukushima or the nearby Yankee reactor, a Fukushima clone that opponents in Vermont are desperately trying to shut.
On April 12, the Japanese government reclassified the Fukushima crisis to Level 7, in a general category with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, while reassuring the public that most of the airborne radiation has been blown "out to sea."
There was no sea at Chernobyl, where the heaviest radioactive contamination quickly settled on areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The public debate continues regarding the number of Chernobyl fatalities. Last year, three Russian scientists published a book based on a broad literature survey. They reported that by the early years of this century, 985,000 Chernobyl downwinders died as a result of the accident — a number far higher than any previous estimates.
THE PEACEFUL ATOM—Commentator and author Ann Coulter might tell a national TV audience that radiation can actually be good for you, and that small doses can actually improve your health and that of your children. But scientists such as Dr. Karl Z. Morgan and Dr. John Gofman, highly regarded pioneers in the study of radiation health physics, long ago established that there is no identifiable safe dose of radiation. That there is no established threshold below which exposure to x-rays, gamma rays, and alpha or beta emissions is "safe" has been accepted in the radiation health physics field since its inception.
In an effort to deny this reality, the industry and its apologists have discounted health impacts from of the Fukushima fallout in the United States. Typical was Matthew Herper in a Forbes blog, who assured readers that there would be minimal health danger from Fukushima "even if things go horribly wrong." The line that no dangerous doses of radiation have reached the U.S. has become an article of faith among major media from CNN to NPR.
Yet difficult to ignore is the presence of four California reactors that sit near major earthquake faults, in tsunami zones. The two reactors on the beach at San Onofre are far closer to San Diego and Los Angeles than Fukushima is to Tokyo. Two more at Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, are within a mile of a newly discovered fault line, and considerably less than that from the shore. Had the Fukushima quake hit either of those sites, southern and central California would be in evacuation mode, and our nation would be blanketed in lethal fallout.
With reactors like Indian Point and San Onofre hauntingly close to major population centers, with some two dozen U.S. plants identical in design to Fukushima, and with still more on or near earthquake faults, industry backers are working to convince the public that however dangerous their nukes might be, coal is worse. Global warming, they say, favors nuclear because it's "carbon free."
Both technologies are doomed by cost, supply, and their impact on the environment and human health.
Our survival ultimately depends on burying fossil fuels — and more immediately, the "Peaceful Atom" that has given us Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima and other accidents that will inevitably follow.
Thus far, Barack Obama has been the industry's best ally. Early into the Fukushima accident — long before it was clear what would happen — he assured the public that there was nothing to worry about here, and that he would continue to push for more reactors. The administration also has failed to establish a national monitoring network that could inform the public about where the radiation is and what individuals might do to protect themselves and their families.
Obama's non-response may date back to his early days as a state senator, when he allied himself with the Illinois-based Exelon, America's biggest private nuke owner. The president's career is rooted in the 11 reactors that ring Chicago. The consulting firm founded by his chief campaign strategist David Axelrod, who would later become a senior White House advisor, represented Exelon. Obama's former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (now mayor-elect of Chicago) put together investment packages for Exelon's Illinois plants when he worked as an investment banker. And Exelon CEO John Rowe has been a longtime financial backer of the president.
A critical moment is coming soon, when Obama goes to Congress to request an additional $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nukes in his 2012 budget.
With them, America's atomic industry has a chance to build a few more reactors. Without them, a green-powered Earth is within our grasp.
(As we go to press Entergy has filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Vermont attempting to prevent the state from forcing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to cease operation on March 21, 2012.)