New Nuclear Reactors, Same Old Problems

For the first time in over two decades, newly built nuclear power generators are seeking approval to start making electricity. Georgia Power and Light, along with 3 other utilities have built 2 new reactors at “Plant Vogtle” outside of Augusta, GA. Units 1 and 2 have been running for years.

Plants 3 and 4 were first approved by the GA Service Commission, the body that regulates utilities, in 2009. Projected to cost 14 billion dollars and begin producing electricity in 2016. By 2023 the cost overruns more than doubled the price tag; it’s now almost $35 billion.

The plant’s new “modular design” was supposed to keep costs down and usher in a new wave of nuclear plants, but it failed. Of the 30 new nuclear plants scheduled to be built after 2005, when the Federal Government made the commissioning of plants more utility friendly 28 were canceled after seeing the problems at Plant Vogtle.

The cost overruns and design problems were so great that the only way to keep the plant from being canceled was for the Federal Government to bail out the utility. Customers are already paying. Regulators estimate Georgia Power will collect $4.1 billion in advance charges, or $913 for every ratepayer.

Calculations show Vogtle’s electricity will never be cheaper than other sources Georgia Power could have chosen, even after the federal government reduced borrowing costs by guaranteeing repayment of $12 billion in loans.

Estimates show Georgia Power could earn an extra $9.4 billion in profit over 60 years if allowed to charge for all spending. Customers could pay $35.7 billion overall, $20.5 billion more than originally projected.

“If they can get away with it, they benefit from screwing up,” said utility analyst David Schlissel.

Should Pennsylvania Consumers be concerned about the bailout of the nuclear industry? Sadly the answer is yes. It was only a few years ago that the PA legislature attempted to bail out the still-working nuclear plants at Three Mile Island. Other nuclear plants in PA were given lifelines. And two of the wealthiest men in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are claiming they can overcome all of the problems with building and operating nuclear plants. Their test project is scheduled to be built in Wyoming.

The impetus for the new wave of nuclear plants is the designation of nuclear power as being “carbon free.” No longer is the nuclear industry claiming its power will be less expensive, it’s not, nor do they claim it’s renewable, as it isn’t. Nor do they say it’s safe, there have been over fifty-seven accidents or severe incidents since the Chernobyl disaster, and about 60% of all nuclear-related accidents/severe incidents have occurred in the USA.

The re-branding of nuclear power as environmentally sensitive ignores the reality. Uranium mining creates serious health and environmental problems, and has disproportionately impacted indigenous people because much of the world’s uranium is located under indigenous land. Uranium miners experience higher rates of lung cancer, tuberculosis, and other respiratory diseases. The production of 1,000 tons of uranium fuel generates approximately 100,000 tons of radioactive tailings and nearly one million gallons of liquid waste containing heavy metals and arsenic in addition to radioactivity.

After 93 million gallons of radioactive material spilled into the Rio Puerco River that marks the southern boundary of Navajo land, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining.

As Stanford University, a recipient of government grants in support of nuclear fuel, says “The long-term effects of nuclear energy on the environment and human health must carefully be considered. As the demand for uranium grows, so too do the hazards associated with uranium mining. Do the benefits of nuclear energy outweigh the risks of air and water pollution, and consequent illness, destroyed ecosystems, and injured wildlife? The search for clean energy stems from the desire to protect and preserve the earth, but uranium poses threats that seemingly accomplish the opposite.”

And of course, there is still no answer to what we do with the nuclear waste: “About 88,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors remain stranded at reactor sites, and this number is increasing by some 2,000 metric tons each year. These 77 sites are in 35 states and threaten to become de facto permanent disposal facilities. Without a geologic repository, there is no way forward for the final disposal of this highly radioactive material. Storing it in pools and dry casks at reactor sites is a temporary solution; it is safe for decades, but not the millennia needed to isolate this radioactive material from the environment. The present U.S. policy of indefinite storage at a centralized site is not a viable solution, as it shifts the cost and risk to future generations.

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