Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why we will never build another nuclear power plant in America

I spent six years as a Reactor Operator on a nuclear submarine in the United States Navy. I spent another two years as an equipment operator in a civilian nuclear power plant in Nebraska.

I strongly believe that nuclear power is a good source of energy and is safe. The nuclear power industry has been nearly destroyed by the United States government and its excessive regulations. The regulations are so oppressive that I decided to make a career change in 1998. I do not think we will ever complete a new nuclear power plant in The United States.

The government has undermined nuclear power in two different ways.
The first way is through excessive levels of government regulation. The nuclear power plant I worked at (The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Station) is a perfect example. In 1978 (Before Three Mile Island) the plant employed about 80 people, mostly equipment operators and security guards. The plant was operated in a safe and efficient manner.

Today, that same plant employs about 550 people. The plant makes the same amount of power today that it did in 1978, it just costs a whole lot more to produce that power. The plant hired about 470 people just to comply with government regulations after Three Mile Island.

The second problem is dealing with nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel rods. These fuel rods are radioactive and must be safely disposed of. The United States government decided to tax all consumers of nuclear power in the country and collect enough money so the government could fund and build a disposal facility.
The Nuclear Waste Fund was created in 1982. One tenth of a cent was charged for each kWh of electricity produced at a nuclear power plant. By 1992 the government had collected enough tax revenue to build a “state of the art” disposal facility. Eventually, due to pressure from the Utility industry, the government finally agreed to build the facility by Jan 31, 1998 at Yucca Mountain.

Yucca Mountain was not completed in 1998 and approximately sixty lawsuits were filed by the Utility industry and various States against the Federal government for breach of contract. It is estimated these lawsuits could cost the Federal government (taxpayers) as much as fifty billion dollars.

In 2001 the Department of Energy completed a cost study and determined it would cost four and a half billion dollars to build the Yucca Mountain facility. Today, The Nuclear Waste Fund has almost 16 billion dollars. This fund is currently used by Congress to offset a small portion of the annual budget deficit. The nuclear waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain is no where near completion, in fact, Department of Energy officials now openly question whether the facility will be completed by 2010, twelve years after the promised completion date.

Since the disposal facility is not operational nuclear power plants have been forced to store their own spent fuel rods at their own cost.
President Bush wants to spur the growth of nuclear power plants. I am all for nuclear power, that being said, President Bush's proposal makes no sense; in fact, it will waste billions of dollars. The new Energy Bill provides almost six and a half billion dollars of subsidies and direct spending to nuclear power generation companies to convince them to build new nuclear power plants. This is absurd. I would suggest The Department of Energy finish Yucca Mountain before it gets involved in building new nuclear power plants.

If we want new nuclear power plants to be constructed we need to minimize government regulation. A new nuclear power plant has not been started since 1973 due to excessive government regulation. The free market should dictate which power generation companies succeed and which ones fail, not the government.
We have experience with failed nuclear power plants right here in Indiana. Public Service Indiana proposed The Marble Hill nuclear power plant in 1973 with an estimated cost of 700 million dollars. Construction on the plant began in 1977 and expenses quickly doubled to about 1.4 billion dollars. In 1984 the project was halted and the plant was abandoned. This failed project cost The State of Indiana 2.8 billion dollars.


Anonymous said...

Can't argue with you Mike, nuclear power is good.
I'd rather have a small amount of highly contaminated waste vs. a huge amount of not so contaminated waste that encourages gobal warming.

Nuclear power is safe, you could argue that it is a target for radicals, but almost everything is a target these days.

Most people are scared of it, 3 mile, Churnoble(spelling?), "Silkwood" thanks Hollywood. But in reality it is very safe if operator correctly. Of course 3 mile can happen again. Just like running your car w/ an oil leak. If you don't maintain it, how can you expect to operate correctly?


Eric McErlain said...

For those of us still in the business, we're actually feeling pretty good about our prospects -- especially when you take into account the changes made in the plant approval process over at NRC. Take a look at this recent speech by NEI's Richard Myers, to see what I mean.

Robert Enders said...

NC should also realize that there were no injuries or fatalities directly related to Three Mile Island.

France get %70 of its power from nuclear power plants and they have never had an accident. (Or at least none that they will admit to. Maybe there is an entire village where all the hookers have blisters all over their bodies. "Don't worry, a little penicillin will clear that up. Come give me a kiss.")

Anyway, there are projects underway in the US to get a new power plant up and running. Only PR issues seem to stnad in the way.

Doug said...

I don't have problems with reduced regulations, but a mechanism should be in place to ensure owners of nuclear plants can compensate victims for any damage the plant may cause.

If the market is going to decide, then all costs should be incorporated into the cost of doing business. No externalizing costs by polluting air or water or by injuring citizens without compensating them or by having the corporate entity disappear when times get tough, letting creditors hold the bag.

None of this is peculiar to nuclear plants. Any entity we expect to be regulated by "the market" should be forced to incorporate all costs of its costs and externalize none of them.

(It occurs to me that you can't have a perfect market in a society that allows the corporate form and bankruptcies. The corporation allows individuals to avoid paying the costs of their actions. Bankruptcy does also. Ultimately, I think the market is just going to be imperfect and the benefits of corporations and bankruptcy outweigh the detriments. But, a recognition that the market is imperfect pretty much leads to some government regulation.)

Anonymous said...

I've visited Yucca Mountain twice and it is ready to begin construction. The testing has all been done and that location is best suited for it. As long as Sen. Reid of Nevada has the power he has and continues to oppose putting the nuclear waste in Nevada, it won't happen. Nuclear power plants are the answer to our energy problem and will eventually get built.

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