Nuclear Energy is a Bad, and Less Efficient Strategy to Our Energy Problems

Oct 06, 2008
Author: SCP Editor

October 6, 2008 – With increasing attention being focused on alternatives to conventional, or fossil fuel sources of energy, there is a strong, well-financed, and politically entrenched contingent that is advocating nuclear as a compelling and even practical approach. John McCain has become the most outspoken advocate of nuclear of late. McCain is on record calling for the construction of 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030, discounting those who take a more measured approach to nuclear as “being against reprocessing and against storing.” If you are against reprocessing and against storing, how can you be for nuclear?

The rhetoric is pathetic, and frankly, there needs to be a more measured approach to the implementation of a nuclear program on a wider scale for several key reasons:

1.     As it turns out, the expense of nuclear is turning out to be much bigger than anyone had ever expected. The best example of a long-term nuclear waste storage site in development is Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which has been plagued by cost overruns and other issues. Most recently, the Department of Energy acknowledged that it will cost at least $96.2 billion to build and operate. The DOE’s early goal for opening the Yucca Mountain site was by 2010, but that timeline has now been pushed out by another decade. The original estimate for the cost of operating the program was $58 billion.  

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that, having assessed 10 nuclear waste clean-up projects, 9 out of 10 had life cycle baseline cost increases ranging from $139 million to as high as $9 billion, with delays from 2 to 15 years. The GAO said “these changes occurred primarily because the baselines we reviewed included schedule assumptions that were not lined to technical or budget realities, and the scope of work included other assumptions that did not prove true.” This lack of ability to establish “true” assumptions when planning nuclear projects is systemic. And time and again, the DOE simply just revises its baseline, adds years and increases budgets. The GOA said recently that the “DOE has not effectively used management tools – including independent project baseline reviews, performance information systems, guidance, and performance goals – to help oversee major cleanup projects’ scope of work, costs and schedule.” If this isn’t an indictment on the DOE’s handling of budgetary and scoping processes I don’t know what is.  

2.     No one is “against” storage, it just turns out that there are substantial challenges to safe storage. There are several issues here. For example, according to the National Regulatory Commission (NRC) there were 125 fires at nuclear sites from 1995 to 2007, of which the NRC classified them all of being limited safety significance. But the GAO reported that the NRC has not resolved several issues that affect the nuclear industry’s compliance with existing NRC fire regulations, and it lacks a comprehensive database on the status of compliance.  

The DOE manages more than 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste stored in 149 single-shell and 28 double-shell underground tanks at its Hanford Site in Washington. The GAO reported that many of these aging tanks have already leaked waste into the soil, and that the DOE’s planned process to deal with emptying the tanks and treating the waste has hit delays and lengthened the process – exacerbating concerns about the tanks’ viability during a long term cleanup process.  

The GAO was recently asked to assess the safety issues at a Savannah River Site (SRS) facility known as H-Canyon, and to determine whether SRS’s radioactive waste storage tanks and associated nuclear waste facilities are capable of handling additional waste generated by H-Canyon, as well as to describe H-Canyon’s compliance with safety and environmental requirements. Unsurprisingly, the GAO concluded that the DOE’s cost estimates for processing enriched uranium at H-Canyon were incomplete, leaving out costs of storing and treating the waste, and critical enhancements to the new facilities that would be needed to store additional waste.   

The EPA, which has been suspect in its mandate under the Bush administration’s watch,  The Union of Concerned Scientists published a report making several “common-sense” recommendations to the nuclear industry, arguing that if these recommendations are not adopted, building a new fleet of nuclear power plants will create serious safety and security risks. Amongst the findings were that:  

·         Safety problems remain despite a lack of serious accidents.
·         The most significant barrier to consistently effective NRC oversight is a poor “safety culture” at the agency itself.
·         The NRC’s policy on the safety of new reactors is an obstacle to ensuring better designs.
·         The NRC’s budget is inadequate.
·         The Price-Anderson Act lessens incentives to improve safety.
·         Spent fuel pools are highly vulnerable to terrorist attack.
·         The NRC gives less consideration to attacks and deliberate acts of sabotage than it does to accidents.
·         NRC assumptions about potential attackers are unrealistically modest.
·         Sabotage of a nuclear reactor could result in a large release of radiation.
·         There is no assurance that reactors can be defended against terrorist attacks.
·         An expansion of nuclear power could—but need not—make it more likely that more nations will acquire nuclear weapons. In any event, it is only one factor of many that will affect this outcome.
·         The nuclear facilities that present the greatest proliferation risk are those that can be used to produce the materials needed to make nuclear weapons— plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU).
·         An expansion of nuclear power could—but need not—make it more likely that terrorists will acquire nuclear weapons.
·         None of the proposed new reprocessing technologies would provide meaningful protection against nuclear terrorism or proliferation.
·         Strict international controls on uranium enrichment facilities will be needed to minimize the proliferation risks associated with expanded nuclear power.
·         A permanent geologic repository is the preferred method for disposal of nuclear waste.
·         Reprocessing offers no advantages for nuclear waste disposal.
·         There is no immediate need to begin operating a permanent repository.
·         Of all the new reactor designs, only one—the Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR)—appears to have the potential to be significantly less vulnerable to severe accidents than todays reactors.
·         Of all the new reactor designs, only one—the EPR—appears to have the potential to be significantly less vulnerable to attack than todays reactors.
·         No technical fix—such as those incorporated in new reprocessing technologies—can remove the proliferation risks associated with nuclear fuel cycles that include reprocessing and the use of plutonium based fuel.
·         The proposed GNEP system of fast burner reactors will not result in more efficient use of waste repositories. 

As far as we can tell, the government hasn’t pursued, and doesn’t intend to pursue the Union of Concerned Scientists recommendations to address these issues, concerns and risks.

This month, thirty science, nuclear security and environmental organizations wrote a letter to the Senate asking it to strike a provision in pending energy legislation that would fund (about $1.5 billion) the construction of a nuclear waste processing facility. They said the facility’s cost would be huge for taxpayers, and wouldn’t cover the complete cost – a pattern that is common in the nuclear development sector. They said the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has projected the cost for a processing and fast reactor program could be more than $700 billion (in 2007 dollars). In addition, they pointed out that the facility would not replace nuclear waste, it isn’t necessary, it increases the risk of nuclear terrorism and it increases environmental contamination.


 This past week the DOE announced 19 Part I loan applications from 17 electric power companies to support the construction of 14 nuclear power plants. The nuclear industry is asking the DOE to provide it with loan guarantees in the amount of $122 billion, a significant increase from the $18.5 billion in loan guarantees currently available from the DOE’s $30.5 billion authorization to make available in the June 30, 2008 Nuclear Power Facilities solicitation. The 14 nuclear plants are estimated to cost $188 billion, and if constructed, they would produce 28,800MW of energy.  

Given the glaring concerns about cost overruns for nuclear, poor oversight issues, short-term and long-term storage challenges, time requires to construct a plant and security issues, there has got to be a better energy source to be pursued at a utility scale which the DOE can allocate its guarantees. 

For example, solar thermal – the Nevada Solar One plant in Nevada generates 64MW of capacity. It cost $220 to $250 million to build. Extending this model (assuming $250 million per 64MW plant), building solar thermal plants capable of bringing 28,800MW of energy onto the grid would cost $113 billion. No issues with storage of spent fuel rods, no issues of national security, shorter to construct and bring online and 40% cheaper. Also, Nevada Solar One uses a technology that collects extra heat by putting it into phase-changing molten salts, enabling the energy to be drawn at night.

Or wind energy -  Deepwater Wind is developing a $1 billion, 600MW offshore wind farm. An extension of this model would show that a $48 billion investment could generate up to 28,800MW of energy. There are estimated to be 24,000MW of power of New Jersey’s coast alone. As with solar thermal, wind energy doesn’t have the share the risks and drawbacks that nuclear does, and in this case, it would be 74% cheaper to build.  

Fresh off a $700 billion bailout for the financial services markets, which have driven the national debt over the $10 trillion mark, it is remarkable to consider that politicians like McCain are pushing for more government support for nuclear in the form of $122 billion in Federally guaranteed loans. Before the announcement this past week from the DOE, when we were only looking at $18.5 billion in loan guarantees, the Congressional Budget Office said estimated there was a 50% chance of default.  

And it doesn’t stop there. Let’s grant for a moment, that the funds to come available for the nuclear industry to build the 45 plants the McCain wants to build in the next 20 years (followed by another 55). And let’s assume that the NRC, DOE and nuclear industry work out the kinks as far as storage, reprocessing and logistics which have been so responsible for cost overruns. By the way, it was the high costs and poor management which created 200 to 380 percent cost overruns in the nuclear industry in the period from 1966 to 1977, according to the Energy Information Association. Suffice it to say that it wasn’t environmentalists that stalled the nuclear industry, but utility executives that couldn’t manage the expenses without governmental support.  

To be fair, in order to get the government support you need public support, which, up until recently hasn’t been there. In any case, if you believe the GAO’s reports, the industry and government haven’t gotten any better at budgeting and logistics in recent years, so likely the overrun scenario will continue to plague taxpayers, who will be shouldering so much of the financial burden for the nuclear build-out.  

But let’s assume all of this gets dealt with, and in the next twenty years we see 45 new nuclear plants built. The whole “not in my backyard” mantra will be a moot point because these plants will be in all of our back yards. In a testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 16, 2005, Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI said that “Another area we consider vulnerable and target rich (for al-Qaida attacks) is the energy sector, particularly nuclear power plants. al-Qaida planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had nuclear power plants as part of his target set and we have no reason to believe that al-Qaida has reconsidered.”  

With a proliferation of nuclear plants over the next 20 years, and beyond sprouting up throughout the nation, and understanding that our intelligence community has reasonably cautioned that these plants can and would likely continue to be targets for nations or rogue groups meaning to do harm to our country, it is reasonable to conclude that even the most “dovish” amongst us with respect to defense spending and buildup will be quick to authorize a perpetual budget for defense of significantly greater proportion than we have today. No longer will defense spending be on equal footing with domestic policies such as healthcare and education. It will take priority. Mission accomplished. This is a hypothetical consequence, of course, of a mass proliferation of nuclear power plants in the U.S., but we think it is reasonable, and certainly creates a huge potential windfall to the defense industry – paid for by the American taxpayer under the guise of Federally guaranteed loans to produce clean nuclear energy and relieve us from our dependence on foreign oil.

But are the consequences all worth it? We don’t think so - especially when there are legitimate alternatives to developing and producing energy on a utility scale in the renewable sector in the form of solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower. It is probably reasonable to suggest that a solar thermal plant in Nevada won’t pose quite the same attraction as a target of terrorism as a nuclear plant in Nevada. Moreover, it would be substantially cheaper to bring online, faster to build and begin generating power, absent of storage issues of toxic spent nuclear fuel rods, and limitless in terms of its feedstock source – the Sun.  

So on several accounts, we think McCain’s plan to build 100 nuclear plants in the next 50 years or so is a bad idea. To be sure, it is good for the defense industry. It is good for contractors like Bechtel. But it is bad for the rest of us. McCain railed against Obama in the first debate because he doesn’t support nuclear:  

“Senator Obama opposes both storing and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. You can’t there from here and the fact is that we can create 700,000 jobs by building constructing 45 new nuclear power plants by the year 2030. Nuclear power is not only important as far as eliminating our dependence on foreign oil but it’s also responsibility as far as climate change is concerned.”  

The comment probably served its rhetorical purpose, but it is based in fundamentally wrong-headed thinking. The fact is, and the experts all agree on this – is that there are currently no long-term storage solutions available to us for spent nuclear fuel. So to criticize anyone for being in opposition to storage because they acknowledge this fact, and that it is not prudent to embrace nuclear as a solution (leaving aside the costs and the burden that would have to be placed on taxpayers to get us there) before having established and validated long-term storage issues is foolish.  

And again, before we go along with the DOE’s inclinations to provide federally guaranteed loans to the tune of $188 billion, which, if history is any indication of future performance, will surely be at least two to three times that cost, let’s please have a serious debate about the alternatives, which are so much more appealing on so many fronts, except of course, to the defense industry.


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is the principal Agency charged with oversight of the Nation’s commercial nuclear industry. NRC’s responsibilities and authority also extend to licensing of certain non-commercial reactors, such as those used in educational programs.

The Department of Energy (DOE) operates nuclear facilities, including National nuclear laboratories. Within the Department of Energy, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) has responsibility for oversight of waste storage, ensuring that waste is properly stored and monitored and does not come into contact with ground water.

The responsibilities of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are varied, ranging from regulation of oil pipelines to licensing of hydroelectric projects. Possibly of most interest to nuclear data users is the data that the Commission collects in support of its responsibilities related to the electric utility industry




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