Nuclear power has always been controversial. The fear of nuclear power plants is usually irrational, but the danger posed by nuclear waste is real. Unlike most environmentalists, for most of my life I have been pro-nuclear. Nuclear power plants produce about 20% of electricity in the U.S.  (15% globally), but that number has not increased since the 1980’s. Three obstacles prevented growth of nuclear power in the U.S.. First, a large part of the public resists expansion of nuclear power because they fear all things nuclear. Nuclear power will always be associated in people’s minds with the use of nuclear bombs in WWII and the fear associated with proliferation of nuclear warheads during the Cold War. Furthermore, radioactivity is particularly frightening to people because it is invisible and outside of their normal experience. Fear makes people irrational, and as a result, I have never been able to convince any opponents that nuclear power is safer than other forms of energy, even though I have the statistics to prove it (see section on “Risk”). In the U.S. the only significant nuclear power plant accident ever was the Three Mile Island accident in central Pennsylvania in 1979, a minor accident that released very little radioactivity into the environment. Both Three Mile Island and the more serious accident in Chernobyl, USSR resulted not from technology problems but human error. Despite the fear it invokes, nuclear power has a remarkable safety record. Second, electricity generated using nuclear fission reactors is more expensive than electricity produced using natural gas or coal. Finally, we have no site to store the radioactive Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) from fission reactors. For these reasons, no electric utility companies have applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to operate a new nuclear power plant in over 20 years. However, the recent recognition of the need to reduce CO2 emissions has reopened the debate: should we expand the use of nuclear power in the U.S.? Nuclear reactors do not emit CO2 or any other pollutants, giving them a decided advantage over fossil fuel-powered plants. Moreover, if we start to tax energy produced by burning fossil fuels, then nuclear power may become economically competitive. President Obama’s proposed cap and trade program to reduce CO2 emissions would internalize the social cost of carbon emissions, increase the cost of fossil fuels, and make nuclear energy more economically feasible. That would leave only one problem: Can the U.S. choose a site and build a facility for storage of SNF? And if the cost of waste disposal is factored in, would nuclear energy still be cost-effective?
I think the answer to both questions is no. After the federal government spent $13.5 Billion dollars developing a high-level nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, newly elected President Obama announced that the government was abandoning the project (http://www.nevadaappeal.com/article/20090306/NEWS/903069981/1070). When the President’s science advisor was asked why, after waffling for several minutes he finally said, “We can do a better job.” Considering that our country spent over 30 years developing the Yucca Mountain site, and that 30 years later it will be even harder to find a site that is acceptable to all parties (the NIMBY syndrome), I am not holding my breath. The Yucca Mountain project fell victim to politics. Senate majority leader Harry Reid represents southern Nevada, where resistance to the Yucca Mt. project has always been strong, and he had previously vowed to kill the project. This is an example of how some individuals gain too much power and abuse it by appeasing narrow interests and disregarding the greater good. Perhaps Harry Reid thought that it was his duty to do what his constituents asked (though I doubt it), but the same will happen with every state that is chosen in the future, making it almost impossible to build a facility. Nevadans named the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act that named Yucca Mountain as the nation’s waste disposal site the “Screw Nevada Bill”, but now < 1% of the population got what they wanted and screwed the rest of the country.
I know many people who are still asking, “why not nuclear power”? However, I bet none of those people would be willing to have a nuclear power plant or waste disposal facility sited in their community. NIMBY is a powerful force in the U.S.. As always, the Golden Rule applies: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Don’t ask others to shoulder the burden to satisfy your energy needs.
Even if the U.S. had followed through and built the Yucca Mountain facility, it would not have been large enough to accept all of the waste we would have by the time it opened. The U.S. currently has 103 operating nuclear power plants . By law, the capacity of the Yucca Mountain facility was limited to 70,000 tons, of which 63,000 tons were designated for SNF and 7,000 tons for defense waste. However, it is estimated that by 2050 the U.S. will have 84,000 tons of SNF . The U.S. now has SNF at over 100 sites in 42 states , and we have now eliminated our only option for safely disposing of it. And the federal government now pays fines of ?/year to the utility companies for breach of contract: they had promised to take the SNF off the hands of the utility companies by ?, but the waste still sits at the site of each nuclear reactor that produced it.
*Next post: The Nuclear Waste Disposal Problem
1. Wallace, M.J., Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Hearing on the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Power 2010 Program. 2005.
2. Carter, L.J. and T.H. Pigford, Getting Yucca Mountain Right. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1998. March/April.
3. Long, J.C.S. and R.C. Ewing, YUCCA MOUNTAIN: Earth-Science Issues at a Geologic Repository for High-Level Nuclear Waste. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 2004. 32(1): p. 363-401. http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/loi/earth