Saturday, April 16, 2011

The true cost of nuclear power

In an April 14, 2011 interview with the Financial Times, Norio Sasaki, the president of Toshiba, a major supplier of nuclear reactors confidently comments that, "The costs [of nuclear] are low, even if an accident happens once every 30 years." He apparently has missed the fact that there have been about 100 nuclear accidents in the last 60 years, including Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979, and Fukushima in 2011. That makes at least three major accidents in 30 years, not one, and when the cost is in the tens of billions per accident, that may not really be as insignificant as he would have us believe.

That would be especially true if we had substantially more nuclear power plants than we have today. Imagine, for example, that we had ten times the amount of reactors that we have today. Even if we use Mr. Sasaki's already discredited figures, assuming the same accident rate, that would translate into a major disaster every three years. If we go back to reality, it would translate into 1000 accidents in the last 60 years. Of course, those are rough estimates. Surely we would learn from those mistakes and build better, safer reactors. However, that costs more money up front. It seems like Mr. Sasaki et al in the nuclear industry isn't too worried about the cost, perhaps because he knows that the government will pick up the tab for the mess afterward, and he will avoid having to spend comparatively little upfront to prevent accidents in the first place.

Oh no, you might say, people learned their lesson after this disaster. They will never allow this kind of thing to happen again. Hardly. In actual fact many people want to go on with business as usual, as though nothing had happened. TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, that is doing such a terrible job at Fukushima, has been slated to build two new reactors on the Texas Gulf Coast ... along with their partner Toshiba, whose president was quoted above as thinking that the occasional nuclear accident is no big deal.

As I have pointed out before, imagine if other industries produced disasters on this scale. Well, actually, companies like BP and Exxon have produced accidents on the multi-billion dollar scale with petroleum, but we use a lot more petroleum than we do nuclear. Right-wingers love to fanatically hate all things renewable, but a wind farm or a solar power plant could never catastrophically fail in this way, such that hundreds of thousands of people would have to be evacuated or face death from cancers over decades.

Again, the nuclear industry loves to point to their current, often whitewashed track record, and claim that there are far more workers killed in coal or petroleum industries. However, nuclear makes up only around 15% of electric power generation and not anything to speak of outside of electric power. Coal and Oil both are used on a far wider scale. Plus, the fact that more nuclear accidents haven't happened in the past may largely be luck. We have far more densely packed spent fuel rods in cooling pools in the US than the Japanese do. They are so densely packed that they are almost as dense as the racks used in reactor cores and the only thing keeping them from going critical is the boron moderator between them. We know that it would be safer to move to "dry cask" storage of the rods, but that's expensive, and the industry swears on a ten-story stack of bibles that something similar to what happened in Japan can't happen here. I don't know about you, but I'm not highly inclined to believe them.

What is abundantly clear to me is that the true cost of nuclear power, where safety systems were put in place that would prevent many of the dangers presently unmanaged, is several times higher than the costs today. Given that nuclear plants are already some of the most expensive objects on the face of the Earth, few people want to spend the money that would be needed to make them safe. Instead, they would rather just tell everyone else to shut up and suffer what they must when disaster inevitably strikes.

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