Nuclear renaissance uncertain after disaster

An advertisement for Vallecitos Atomic Electric Power Plant,

It’s still too early to tell if Japan’s ongoing reactor crisis
might put the brakes on America’s nascent

nuclear renaissance.

Energy from atoms has long promised to help America reduce its
dependence on fossil fuels. And more recently, it’s been pitched as
a way to combat global warming.
It’s still too early to tell if Japan’s ongoing reactor crisis might put the brakes on America’s nascent “nuclear renaissance.” Energy from atoms has long promised to help America reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. And more recently, it’s been pitched as a way to combat global warming. But the chaos at the Fukushima reactors reminds us that going nuclear can be a Faustian deal. When a uranium-fueled power plant goes to hell, the devil will demand his due.

President Obama is trying to stimulate a resurrection of nuclear power in America. He has proposed expanding nuclear energy by providing $36 billion in loan guarantees to construct up to 20 new nuclear reactors. But that ambitious plan might now be literally dead in the coolant water – depending on what happens with Japan’s ongoing nuclear nightmare.

Close to our own region of the Bay Area, scientists and engineers have worked on the development of nuclear energy reactors. The Vallecitos Atomic Electric Power Plant near Pleasanton was America’s first privately funded plant to provide power to the grid in megawatts. It served as a proving ground to advance the technology for larger commercial power plants in the United States. It was run in a partnership between Pacific Gas & Electric and General Electric.

Vallecitos officially opened on Nov. 25, 1957. One of the guests of honor at the grand opening ceremony was Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, then the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The year before, he had predicted that nuclear power would one day provide America with electric energy “too cheap to measure.” His fuel forecast never came true. Six years after Strauss spoke at the grand opening, the Vallecitos plant closed down. It was the first nuclear power plant to be decommissioned.

California faced its own nuclear crisis in 1978, one year before Three Mile Island. The Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant, located south of Sacramento, underwent the third most serious nuclear plant incident in American history. It faced power failure when a cable caught on fire from a worker’s candle and spread. No one was hurt. The plant operated for 15 years at only 39 percent of its capacity. It closed in 1989 after the public passed a special referendum. Rancho Seco is America’s first nuclear plant shut down by voter decree.

Currently, California generates electricity at only two nuclear power plant sites – the Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo and the San Onofre plant near San Diego. Our state gets about 4,700 megawatts from these two facilities, or about 12 percent of our total supply.

Since Three Mile Island, the public’s allure for energy generated from atoms has been mixed with an uncertainty about its dangers to human health and the environment. The nuclear wizards assure us that the radioactive dragons kept captive deep in the dungeons of their reactor fortresses are safely under control. Unfortunately, the world is now reminded by Fukushima what happens when atomic dragons get loose.

Nuclear power has been, in recent years, boasted as a virtually carbon-free source of energy. When looked at in a narrow view, the process of producing electric energy from fission in the uranium rods of a nuclear reactor is indeed carbon free. But looking at the big picture of nuclear power, we see it’s not a completely clean source of power. A tremendous amount of fossil fuels are consumed to produce the tons of cement and steel required to construct a massive plant. Large quantities of coal and oil are also burned to mine and process uranium ore for the nuclear fuel.

Time and taxpayer dollars are two other considerations we should considering in regards to America’s nuclear renaissance. If the history of previous nuclear plant construction is repeated, we’ll see doubling of construction time and the escalating of costs. Next-generation reactors might not come online until at least 12 years. And each new reactor will most likely exceed $10 billion to build if cost overruns occur.

Despite the recent inducements from Obama, Wall Street remains lukewarm about nuclear power. Investors see it as a risky gamble – even when the government provides taxpayer dollars to hedge the bet as well as goes out on the limb for the insurance stake. And as clean energy technology – especially solar and wind – drops in price as nuclear plant costs climb, the financial folks will grow even more skittish.

Japan’s nuclear reactor crisis might very quickly end America’s nuclear renaissance before it really begins. We’ll see what happens, especially in the coming weeks. Nearly 60 years ago, advocates of nuclear energy promised Americans they would get electricity that was “too cheap to measure.” As we face our energy future, the economic, national security, public health and environmental risks might make nuclear power too steep to matter.   

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