Nuclear power has come into the news, proposed by Republican candidate John McCain as an alternative to the importation of oil.
The industry has suffered from a poor public image. There was of course the movie China Syndrome, which starred Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon in a tale of an escalating drama unfolding as the reactor core of a nuclear power plant overheats.
Then there was the Karen Silkwood story. Silkwood died in a one-car accident after suffering plutonium contamination. See a Los Alamos National Lab (government-sponsored) report posted at PBS' "Nuclear Reaction; Why Do Americans Fear Nuclear Power," available here.
According to LANL's report, a team from Los Alamos Health Research Laboratory conducted Silkwood's post-mortem analysis "to determine her actual body burden." Samples were also sent to the Los Alamos Tissue Analysis Program and Los Alamos Health Research Laboratory. Both organizations are 100% government owned and operated (as is PBS.) I bring up the issue of government control because independent laboratory analysis is not readily available in the nuclear industry. The lack of transparency offers opportunities for abuse, as well as conflicts of interest in this age of cronyism in government.
Another reason to distrust government evaluations is high stakes litigation between nuclear power providers and nearby residents and workers who might be contaminated like Silkwood. Silkwood sued Kerr-McGee; a initial jury verdict in her favor was overturned on appeal. In 1986, Silkwood's estate settled out of court; the Kerr-Mcgee plant closed in 1975, according to the report.
The recent Exxon Valdez settlement demonstrated the Supreme Court's willingness to let victims wait, as well as reduce the damages awarded. Should a nuclear accident occur, it's unlikely the full damages would be paid--this doesn't mean however that insurers and the capital markets will ignore the potentially huge verdicts that could be rendered, should the Supreme Court not intervene.
Silkwood's case also spawned the 1983 movie Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep, who provides a memorable portrayal of Silwood. At its end, the movie points at the possibility that her death was no accident.
The impact of movies like Silkwood and China Syndrome reflect just how fearful people (and not just Americans) are about nuclear power. Clearly these fears stem from the use of nuclear weapons and their terrible aftereffects. The invisible and insidious penetration of radiation, combines with its persistence, make radioactive fuels and weapons especially odious.
Nuclear energy's close relationship with government sponsors and regulators encourages skepticism, as a healthy means to "keep them honest" in hopes of preventing another meltdown like Three Mile Island. Since that event, plans for nuclear power plants were scrapped all over the nation, including one for Public Service Indiana, which had spent in excess of a billion dollars on an aborted project in Southern Indiana. For politicians, and investors, nuclear power is potentially a real hot potato of an issue--just one meltdown could doom new construction nationwide and perhaps even worldwide.
On the surface, nuclear power does represent a viable energy source, but on closer analysis through the entire supply chain, production, and disposal processes, nuclear power remains remarkably dangerous and tremendously expensive. Obviously, with the consequences of radioactive contamination so severe, traditional nuclear power will be very costly, in no small part due to the costs of preventing and containing potential leaks and preventing catastrophic meltdowns.
Leaks and production mistakes
Cataloging the vast number of safety violations and leaks by the nuclear power industry is a challenging task, made so by the number of nuclear power plants, and the general lack of transparency on mistakes and failures. At least Americans and Europeans are made aware of safety issues caused by their reactors. Unfortunately it wasn't until radiation was detected in Sweden that millions of people became aware of Chernobyl, a massive leak in what is now Ukraine. The Soviet autocracy, to avoid a public relations disaster that the event became, kept the meltdown there a secret, worsening the crisis and gravely damaging nuclear power's reputation.
The government of France has embraced nuclear power, choosing Areva, a large consortium, to build numerous reactors. The company has violated safety standards, missed safety goals, and contaminated nearby localities. Researching "areva" provided ample evidence that reactor construction and production methods are unsafe.
French consortium Areva had been planning a newer, more efficient reactor model until its Tricastin site in Southern France leaked uranium. I've read in a post on commondreams.org that 75 kilograms of untreated uranium "seeped into the ground" and into a tributary of the Rhone river.
As cleanup for even "minor" leaks can easily run into the tens of millions, nuclear power providers will have a hard time competing with safer--and therefore cheaper--alternatives.
Areva has proposed a new reactor model that attempts to reduce waste, a worthy goal for any nuclear plant, if not for ecological considerations, than those of cost. If the nuclear power industry is going to be viable, it needs to be cost competitive. The "world's first next-generation pressurised water reactor" being built in Finland using the new blueprints required the company to set aside an additional billion dollars "in provisions to absorb the rise in costs" required by the Finnish regulators, according to the business daily Les Echos.