Here in the Boston area we sit in the geographic center of two aging nuclear plants and there’s a third just over the border in Western Mass. The Pilgrim Nuclear plant and VT Yankee have the same General Electric Mark 1 reactor as the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan and to make matters worse, the NRC rated Pilgrim Nuclear as the 2nd most risky plant in the nation in terms of earthquakes.
VT Yankee on the Mass border is nearing the end of its 40-year license so applied for a 20-year extension and has recently been found to be leaking radioactive tritium from a pipe the plant previously claimed didn’t even exist.
The failure of the Yucca Mountain project, imperfect as it was, at least would have allowed for dry storage away from population centers as opposed to spent fuel storage on site at every plant. Earthquakes aside, the pools that store the spent fuel are ten times the hazard of protected reactors in terms of security, terrorism, and volume of fuel.
While I fully respect the potential of nuclear power, it is an elaborate, risky, and expensive way to boil water to turn a turbine. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists documents fourteen “near-misses” at US nuclear plants during 2010 and evaluates the NRC’s response in each case. The events exposed a variety of shortcomings, such as inadequate training, faulty maintenance, poor design, and failure to investigate problems thoroughly. Recent history is enough to shake anyone’s faith in our ability to deploy this sophisticated technology safely but for the awesome responsibility of keeping us safe, it’s time for the NRC to renew its mission.
Not only should we take a closer look at safety measures at the vintage fleet around us but the federal government should consider tabling and re-evaluating plans to construct 100 new nuclear plants in the US. A map that shows just 20 of the 100 nuclear plants on track to be built shows that most are concentrated along the east coast. Many of these proposals have active applications before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and this new construction plan, proposed in 2009, is showing no sign of abatement even with the backdrop of the unfolding catastrophe in Japan.
Politically, we need to immediately stop propping up this industry with our desperately needed tax dollars. In spite of deep and painful budget cuts that will have far reaching consequences for essential government services, President Obama has unfortunately budgeted another $36 billion dollars of market-distorting loan guarantees for the nuclear industry.
The groundwork for these subsidies was laid years ago when, at the urging of the nuclear power industry, a one-sentence provision was buried in the 2005 energy bill and inserted without debate, making nuclear plants classified as clean energy, ensuring eligibility for tens of billions of dollars in government loan guarantees.
Clean? Not by a long stretch. I visited Chernobyl in 1992 shortly after the nuclear disaster that led to the death or cancer diagnosis for several hundred thousand people. The “Red Forest”, as it was dubbed when area evergreen trees turned red from radiation, had already been taken down and buried. The desolation in the plant’s “Zone of alienation” and other well-documented impacts offered a powerful cautionary tale I’m afraid we have forgotten.
It is a time for clarity of thought and communication. No matter how proponents spin it, nuclear power generation is not safe or economic and will never be until the waste problem is solved. Congressman Ed Markey (D. Mass) has been on the forefront of holding plant owners accountable and keeping us informed. I would like to see similar activity from President Obama beyond a tacit embrace of this industry.
Simultaneous to this impressive nuclear industry lobbying effort, the fossil fuel lobby has marginalized renewable energy efforts and badly distorted US energy policy. Elected officials need to be more skeptical and Americans need to do a better job of recognizing clever PR campaigns. Rather than subsidizing nuclear power plants, oil companies, or offshore drilling, we need to find a way that we can safely coexist with the energy production upon which we rely.
Early signs at reconsideration are evident. In light of this catastrophe in Japan, Germany has taken the bold step of calling for closure of at least seven of its oldest nuclear plants. Renewable experts in Germany claim to be able to supply up to 47% of Germany’s energy needs with renewable sources by 2020. Energy-thirsty China has just tabled its plans for 28 new reactors and Russia and France have announced moratoriums.
It’s time for American innovation to kick in.
It will take imagination, new business models, new financial tools, and new information systems to move away from the point source model we’ve known for most of our lives. If we do so, there’s nothing to stop us from, perhaps, lining our network of interstate highways with solar arrays and turbines. We already own the right-of-ways and since highways pass through cities that need electricity we would have connectivity.
Be it this vision or another, America should have a sustainable vision and our leaders should be able to articulate it clearly. Our current energy plan more closely resembles a wrestling match for subsidies than a well thought out and strategic plan.
While the nation appears to be coming out of a period of nuclear amnesia President Obama has a great political opportunity to articulate a long-term vision we all can live with.
Just a personal note: Seeing Chernobyl made the half-life of my nuclear memory long. This map will give you some idea of the scope of the desolation. I don’t have the technical ability to do so, but what would this map look like over a similarly scaled map around any other plant in the US? As President of the Kennedy School Energy Caucus a few years ago, I was able to tour Seabrook too. All food for thought.