The unfolding multiple nuclear reactor catastrophe in Japan is prompting overdue attention to the104 nuclear plants in the United States - many of them aging, many of them near earthquake faults, some on the west coast exposed to potential tsunamis.
Nuclear power plants boil water to produce steam to turn turbines that generate electricity. Nuclear power's overly complex fuel cycle begins with uranium mines and ends with deadly radioactive wastes for which there still are no permanent storage facilities to contain them for tens of thousands of years.
Atomic power plants generate 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Over forty years ago, the industry's promoter and regulator, the Atomic Energy Commission estimated that a full nuclear meltdown could contaminate an area "the size of Pennsylvania" and cause massive casualties. You, the taxpayers, have heavily subsidized nuclear power research, development, and promotion from day one with tens of billions of dollars.
Because of many costs, perils, close calls at various reactors, and the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, there has not been a nuclear power plant built in the United States since 1974.
Now the industry is coming back "on your back" claiming it will help reduce global warming from fossil fuel emitted greenhouse gases.
Pushed aggressively by President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu, who refuses to meet with longtime nuclear industry critics, here is what "on your back" means:
1. Wall Street will not finance new nuclear plants without a 100% taxpayer loan guarantee. Too risky. That's a lot of guarantee given that new nukes cost $12 billion each, assuming no mishaps. Obama and the Congress are OK with that arrangement.
2. Nuclear power is uninsurable in the private insurance market - too risky. Under the Price-Anderson Act, taxpayers pay the greatest cost of a meltdown's devastation.
3. Nuclear power plants and transports of radioactive wastes are a national security nightmare for the Department of Homeland Security. Imagine the target that thousands of vulnerable spent fuel rods present for sabotage.
4. Guess who pays for whatever final waste repositories are licensed? You the taxpayer and your descendants as far as your gene line persists. Huge decommissioning costs, at the end of a nuclear plant's existence come from the ratepayers' pockets.
5. Nuclear plant disasters present impossible evacuation burdens for those living anywhere near a plant, especially if time is short.