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Nuclear’s Glowing, False New Dawn

| November 15, 2009

Nuclear's belching of misinformation is at it again.

Energy independence is the new creationism; nuclear power its deity. As the head glow for nuclear’s new dawn, you can’t do better than Aris Candris. He’s president and CEO of Westinghouse Electric, the company aiming to build 14 of 25 new nuclear reactors planned in the United States. Candris also sums up everything that’s wrong with the nuclear power industry’s orchestrated revival – the deceptions, the manipulated numbers, the false promises and the sheer swindle of taxpayer dollars for a technology with a lethal past and an unproven future. Candris’ Nov. 9 tribute to nuclear in The Wall Street Journal tells the tall tale.

Candris claims that, because electricity demand will grow 21 percent by 2030 from current levels, and “renewable energy sources produce only a small percentage” of total electricity output, it’s “doubtful that they can be scaled up to a degree that would make a significant impact on rising electricity demand over the short or intermediate term.” Actually, that’s more true of nuclear, far less so of renewable. Not a single nuclear power plant has been approved and built in the United States since the 1970s. The newest one, Watts Bar in Tennessee, began construction in 1973 and went online in 1996 – a 23-year span that multiplied its initial costs, to $7 billion. Candris gives the impression that a slew of plants are about to be built. Not so. A slew of plants applied for licenses, but only because the federal government is offering up to $1 billion in tax credits per new nuclear plant (once electricity production begins), as long as the application was in by the end of 2008.

“We expect the first of these new plants to come online about 2016,” Candris writes of Westinghouse’s planned construction, which includes reactors for Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point plant south of Miami. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission three weeks ago declared Westinghouse’s designs flawed and possibly in need of redesign. Westinghouse’s Web site still claims its reactors will churn by 2016. Look for pigs flying around Turkey Point, too, because Westinghouse’s claims are identical to those of Areva, a French company building what was supposed to be a next-generation nuclear plant in Finland – quick, safe, cheap. The plant, Europe’s first in 30 years, was supposed to open last summer. Finns will be lucky if it’s open by 2012. It was to cost $3.5 billion. The cost is now creeping close to $7 billion and counting.

Candris presumes that growing electricity demand is “too great to satisfy with energy efficiency and conservation alone.” And he points to France, which produces 80 percent of its electricity through nuclear energy, as the model of “the world’s most nuclear-dependent and energy-independent country.” But French electricity consumption is 7,200 kilowatts per person per year, 44 percent less than the American consumption of 12,900 kilowatts per person. France is a model – of conservation. (Candris is wrong about France’s independence: it imports all of its oil and natural gas.)

In the United States between 1995 and 2008, electricity consumption increased by 22 percent, more than the projected increase over the next 21 years. The country coped without gobs of nuclear power – and can cope again as renewables like wind and solar increase their share of electricity generation, from 5 percent today (compared with nuclear’s 20 percent) faster and safer. Imagine if renewables had the kind of obscene tax subsidies the nuclear industry is receiving.

Candris’ final fallacy: Renewables are “comparatively more expensive energy sources.” In fact, nuclear energy is more expensive than solar or wind energy. Take Florida Power & Light’s plan to build two new nuclear reactors sometime over the next 12 years (it’s not clear when, though the company is already socking it to customers by making them pay for construction today. No other state but Georgia allows that con). The projected cost of the two reactors is $18 billion. It’ll certainly go up well beyond that by the time they’re done, but go with the $18 billion figure. The two reactors will produce 2,234 megawatts of electricity. That comes out to $8 million per megawatt at the opening bell. FPL just started operating a 25-megawatt solar-power plant in DeSoto County. Cost: $152 million, or $6 million per megawatt – $2 million cheaper than the projected cost of the nuclear reactors. With wind, it’s even cheaper. A Chinese-American consortium on Oct. 29 announced plans for a 600-megawatt wind farm in West Texas. Cost: $1.5 billion, or $2.5 million per megawatt. Cheap nuclear power? Demonstrably not.

Keep in mind that wind and solar farms require zero raw materials to operate, and minimal security. Terrorists aren’t about to crash planes into wind turbines or solar panels. Operating a nuclear plant is said to be cheaper than operating gas- or coal-fired plants – but not when security, liability and potential catastrophes are figured into the equation. And for all the safety advances of the past 30 years, the current fleet of about 100 reactors has a projected Chernobyl- or Three Mile Island-like severe accident rate of one every 100 years. Would you like to live near those odds?

The nuclear power industry can’t even persuade its own investors to bet on it, so it’s going after tax dollars and captive customers to pay for its dreamed-up expansion. Simple solution: If nuclear power can make it on its own, fine. But it’s far too dangerous, too uncertain, too costly and too tempting to terrorists to be subsidized by taxpayers and unwilling customers. So far, the nuclear power industry is betting equally and exclusively on public dollars and gullibility. Don’t let it get away with it.

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