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Preserving Nuclear Power Stations?
No, thanks
By Roger Lippman
April 25, 2018

A response to David Roberts in Vox

Regarding your April 5, 2018 Vox column on preserving nuclear power stations: I admire your dedication, which I share, to reducing the causes of climate change. But it's important to keep in mind that there are other environmental threats we must deal with at the same time. 

Nuclear power is dangerous, expensive, and the source of threats to the environment from causes other than meltdowns and explosions that have rendered areas of Europe, Japan, and the US uninhabitable for thousands of years to come. It is also a profit center (often with public subsidy) for giant corporations that should instead be investing in clean alternatives.

There have been "only" seven or so catastrophic nuclear power events resulting in the destruction of the power plant and harm to workers and/or nearby residents. (See a discussion of each at http://nuclearfreenw.org/catastrophes.htm .) The power plants being bailed out or asking for bailouts are near the end of their design lives, when deep-down corrosion and metal fatigue are widespread, though often unnoticed. And while some of them, at least, were designed with every conceivable danger in mind, history shows that it is the inconceivable dangers that will kill you. (Read We Almost Lost Detroit for vivid descriptions.) 

New Jersey has now quantified what it takes to keep obsolete, uncompetitive nuclear power plants running: $300 million a year for about four plants. Evidently you have not stopped to imagine how much truly clean, safe, sustainable energy that money could provide or you would have said so. Similarly, economists calculate that the WPPSS-2 nuclear plant at Hanford (now operating under the fit-for-print name Columbia Generating Station) is costing the Pacific Northwest $85 million annually to run. That is the difference between its cost of production and the market value of its product. That's a lot of solar panels and wind generators foregone. Shutting down the WPPSS plant now would free up that much money and get us on the long road to decommissioning, which only gets more expensive as time goes on. 

You might say there's not that much sun or wind in New Jersey, and though you would probably be wrong, there are plenty of other places that energy can profitably be harvested with the same money. 

Other dangers: what about the nuclear waste? Still, no one knows what to do with it. A national waste repository, which no one has figures out where or how to build, would, if built, lead to the nation's roads and tracks being traversed by dangerous waste in containers not at all designed for worst-case accidents. Keeping the waste on site makes it an attractive target for everything from terrorists to tsunamis. 

The nuclear power subsidies granted to utilities by some states and requested in more are not primarily for the purpose of protecting the climate. They are heavily lobbied for by the giant utilities that operate nuclear plants as well as massive fossil fuel generators. What they are after is squeezing the last profits out of obsolete technologies that are nearing the end of their lifetimes.

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Follow-up: On May 11, 2018, Roberts, who does not respond to reader feedback, wrote an even more short-sighted article about nuclear power.

At least he gave a nod to Amory Lovins, who states the case more eloquently than I do, but then Roberts turns around and dismisses him curtly. How about taking him seriously? The task, as Roberts hints at, is to find a way to replace nuclear power with clean energy. It's pretty clear that this is the wisest way to go, and in other discussions he seems to be in favor of clean energy. So why not try to figure it out here, and advocate for it?

 


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