Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, October 11, 2007

On US Energy Policy

Clean, cheap energy? Not really

by Mark Leno and Rochelle Becker

San Francisco Chronicle (October 02 2007)

Nuclear power is billed by Christine Todd Whitman and other nuclear advocates as the cure for summertime power outages, but that's exactly when nuclear power is the least dependable. Nuclear reactors demand a constant flow of cold water to keep their radioactive core cooled, and any disruption to that flow can cause a catastrophic upset.

In the United States, two-thirds of our nuclear power plants are located on lakes and rivers, which provide the necessary cooling water. However, as temperatures increase and climate change brings longer and more frequent heat waves, the ambient temperature of surface water increases.

Last summer, nuclear plants were shut down in Michigan because the water wasn't cold enough, and plants in Minnesota, Illinois, Connecticut and Pennsylvania were "ramped down" to lower output for the same reason. France is often cited as a nuclear success story. However, during a 2003 heat wave, seventeen French reactors reduced their output or shut down due to increasing water temperatures. Electricité d France was forced to purchase power from other countries at ten times the normal price. On days when their electricity is needed most, nuclear plants using once-through cooling can't meet the demand.

Nuclear plants such as California's Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, which use billions of gallons of cold ocean water every day, may find that source cut off. A 2007 interpretation of the Clean Water Act by the US Court of Appeals in New York will redefine the ability of power plants to use water for once-through cooling. Although the details are not finalized, the thermal impacts to ocean ecosystems are making many nuclear plants even less reliable.

Regardless of weather or season, there is one thing nuclear energy can be counted on to deliver - tons and tons of high level radioactive waste. This by-product of an industry billing itself as "clean energy" is so lethal that its most hazardous components must be shielded from the biosphere for 300,000 years. This is the same waste debacle that the government promised to solve decades ago, and has failed, despite spending billions of utility ratepayer and tax dollars.

According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, approximately 55,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste is being stored adjacent to our nation's waterways and, in California this lethal material is sitting on our earthquake-active coast. One radioactive release could devastate our state's tourism and agriculture sectors. The earthquake at Kashiwazaki, Japan, on July 16 was caused by a previously unknown fault and damaged Japan's largest nuclear plant, putting 7,000 megawatts of summer energy offline indefinitely.

The Japan incident has also resulted in massive cancellations in coastal tourism lodgings with roughly eighty percent of tourists citing concerns over a radiation leak. Imagine what that would do to the California economy from Disneyland to Sea World if a similar incident happened at Southern California's San Onofre reactor? A Chernobyl-like incident at the Central Coast's Diablo Canyon plant could spread radiation over California's Central Valley ruining the livelihood of millions and threatening the nation's food supply for decades.

In the fifty years the nuclear power industry has had to prove itself economical, reliable and safe, we have seen construction costs skyrocket to twenty times more than their original cost, shutdowns, new threats from terrorism and no real solution for safeguarding radioactive waste for 300,000 years. By now, a mature industry like nuclear power should be competitive but is instead seeking $50 billion in taxpayer subsidies in the federal energy bill now awaiting resolution between the House and Senate.

When the hot summer sun blazes down on the Golden State, Californians ultimately must plan for a future based on truly renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and ocean power. Because saddling future generations with the responsibility to safeguard our nuclear waste or face catastrophe, should not be an option at all.

Mark Leno represents the eastern half of San Francisco in the California State Assembly. Rochelle Becker is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility and serves on the Sierra Club's National Radiation Committee.

This article appeared on page B-7 of the San Francisco Chronicle
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

Bill Totten


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