from the Washington Spectator
"There's never been a death because of radiation ... in a civilian nuclear power plant. ... In Texas, if there's any kind of a serious earthquake or natural disaster, I want to be in the control room at Comanche Peak [Nuclear Power Plant] because that is the absolute safest place to be." --Texas Congressman Joe Barton, April 6, 2011
In the wake of the apocalyptic nightmare at Fukushima, the multi-trillion-dollar global nuclear power industry is looking over the abyss at a long-overdue extinction.
But the issue is far from decided. Japan's horrifying catastrophe has sent the industry's spin machine into overdrive. Hell-bent on minimizing the dangers of this unprecedented disaster, we've been shown the script of what reactor-backers are willing to say and do to save themselves.
It is not a pretty picture. It focuses on the assertion that there are safe doses of radiation, and that atomic energy has harmed few, if any. Three Mile Island "hurt no one." There were few casualties at Chernobyl. And Fukushima's long-term damage will be minimal.
Atomic apologists argue that only nuclear power can fill our long-term "base load," that renewables are of no real consequence, and our choice is between more nukes and more coal.
Yet the nuclear industry faces significant hurdles in cost and construction lead time, two inescapable factors that are on the brink of killing atomic electricity-generation.
The end is not guaranteed. New reactor construction cannot proceed in the United States without huge federal handouts. There are no private sources willing to fund additional U.S. projects. Wall Street has only been keen on atomic energy when subsidies and ironclad guarantees have been available.
No reactor ordered in this country since 1974 has been completed. In that year, Richard Nixon promised 1,000 atomic reactors licensed to operate by the year 2000. Today there are 104.
There are many reasons those 896 reactors went missing. Number one is the fact that the No Nukes movement stopped the industry from gouging from the government the trillion or more dollars it would have taken to build that fleet.
Local and national public opposition slowed and cancelled many projects and created a political atmosphere in which it is impossible for the industry to do what was done in France. There the industry established a radioactive form of national socialism. It is amusing to watch American "free- market advocates" go rhapsodic about the French nuclear industry, when in fact it is owned, insured, operated, monitored, and regulated by the government.
Here the government doesn't own the reactors, but it does own their liabilities. When atomic power was introduced, utilities refused to invest unless Congress would insulate them from the damage caused by an accident. So the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 required reactor owners to establish a pay-out pool of $540 million: the industry's liability for an accident whose potential was estimated to be capable of destroying a land mass the size of Pennsylvania.
The protection has been periodically renewed by Congress. Today the pool has grown to $12.6 billion. As Fukushima has demonstrated, that's a fraction of the potential damage from a disaster at one or more American reactors. Preliminary estimates of the cost for radioactive cleanup at Fukushima mean little, in part because they're intertwined with destruction from quake and tsunami. And the accident is far from over. Radioactive emissions seem to be worsening, and five weeks after the earthquake the level of radioactive iodine 131 was 6,500 times the legal limit in the Pacific waters near the plant. Should such fallout occur from a U.S. reactor, beyond the $12.6 billion pool, liability would rest with the victims and the taxpayers.
Without government cash to build reactors that would produce electricity once billed as "too cheap to meter," the industry has stalled. In recent months, even before Fukushima, local voters have begun to force the shutdown of operating reactors. In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin was elected on a pledge to shut the Yankee reactor. A deal cut by its owner, Entergy, and the state legislature requires official approval for operations beyond March 2012. In New York, newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo is focused on shutting down Indian Point, 35 miles north of Manhattan.
But as fans of monster movies know, there comes a moment when the beast has been slain, all are celebrating " and then " BAM! It comes back to life.
That resurrection has come to be known as the "nuclear renaissance," which again rests on federal handouts. The Bush administration provided $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to underwrite the beginning of a new generation of reactors. In 2007, with former Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), the "senator from nuclear power," the industry attempted to get $50 billion in additional loan guarantees.
But a grassroots movement arose with help from a NukeFree.org effort, led by singers Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Graham Nash. With a website, a YouTube video, a petition drive that gathered 120,000 signatures, and a lobby day in October 2007, Domenici's $50 billion proposal was defeated.
In 2008, 2009, 2010 and thus far in 2011, similar efforts by the industry to grab federal money have been denied, which is remarkable because, as reported by an investigative team at American University, proponents of reactors have spent some $645 million in the last decade lobbying Congress for more subsidies. For an underfunded grassroots movement to beat a campaign that spent on average $65 million a year (excluding what was spent on media) is miraculous.