While President Obama has announced an offer of $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new nuclear reactors, worries about potential cost overruns, health risks and safety concerns lead many to believe his proposal may cause far more harm than good – assuming that the reactors can be successfully built.
Should the builder borrow money and then default on the loan, the Obama administration’s guarantee means that the lenders and investors would not suffer the financial loss. Instead, taxpayer money would be used to cover the cost.
Administration officials have said that the companies involved would pay fees to cover the possibility of default and that these loan guarantees would not cost taxpayers money. However, both the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office have estimated that the risk of default on a guarantee for new nuclear reactor construction could be as high as 50 percent.
Construction of nuclear reactors also consistently run into large cost and deadline overruns. The company that built the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia, where the two new reactors would be, initially estimated construction costs of $1 billion for four reactors. By 1989, that number had risen to $9 billion for only two reactors. Now, the estimate for the two new reactors is approximately $14 billion.
It is also difficult to finish building nuclear reactors on time. According to The New York Times, an analysis prepared for the German government in 2009 showed that of the 45 nuclear reactors under construction, 22 have run into delays. Some reactors overshot their budgets and deadlines or had faulty construction to the point that the projects were completely abandoned, losing billions of dollars in the process.
“The reason that we haven’t built nuclear reactors for decades isn’t that everybody’s afraid of them, but that nobody will invest in them,” said Josh Dorner, a Sierra Club spokesman. “When Wall Street won’t invest in something, that should tell you how bad it is.”
“[Nuclear energy] is the most socialized energy in the world and would not exist except for public money,” said Eric Jantz, staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), a nonprofit, public interest law firm that focuses on environmental issues.
A large amount of criticism and concern about nuclear energy particularly focuses on the unresolved problem of disposing nuclear waste, as no safe long-term solution has yet been discovered. Waste is currently stored in water pools before being moved to dry casks left on site at the nuclear plants. While the canisters used for storage are secure in the short-term, the waste itself is still highly toxic and sites need to be monitored and guarded.
Peter Bradford, a consultant and former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said storing waste like this for a very long period of time is not viable. “The danger is what happens when the waste gets out of the canisters,” he added.
In his speech, President Obama mentioned appointing a bipartisan panel to examine the issue of nuclear waste. “We need to accelerate our efforts to find ways of storing this waste safely and disposing of it…. And these plants also have to be held to the highest and strictest safety standards to answer the legitimate concerns of Americans who live near and far from these facilities. That’s going to be an imperative.”
Despite this unsolved problem, proponents say nuclear energy is still a good alternative because it is a clean source of power with no carbon dioxide emissions. However, individuals like Jon Block, another attorney at the NMELC, said that this conclusion overlooks all the harmful byproducts of the process.
“The nuclear industry speaks very proudly about how green their reactors are, but it doesn’t factor in chemical emissions or the people at our end who are involved in mining and moving it, fabricating it, enriching it,” said Block. “At every link, most people are being dosed.”
Studies have a hard time definitively stating that emissions from the production of nuclear energy lead to higher rates of cancer in the immediate population, as causality is hard to pinpoint and a large number of potential factors make it hard to isolate individual variables.
However, Navajo miners in New Mexico involved at the beginning of the nuclear chain in mining uranium have shown very high rates of lung cancer. According to The Los Angeles Times, the cancer death rate on the reservation doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, while overall cancer death rates declined in the US during the same time period. While a definitive link has not been established, researchers say “exposure to mining byproducts in the soil, air and water almost certainly contributed to the increase in Navajo cancer mortality.”
Another worry is the danger of a nuclear plant or a waste site being hit in a terrorist strike. “With a missile launcher that could be held on your back, at a distance of half a mile, someone could penetrate one of those canisters,” said Block. “Then the puff of cesium that comes out would cause devastation and spread radiation within a one mile radius.”
According to NuclearBailout.org, though Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, said that he had considered targeting a nuclear facility instead of the World Trade Center, nuclear reactors are still “not required to be protected against air attack.”
As seen with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, an accident could also be devastating. Nuclear reactors need a large amount of water to keep them cool. However, when there isn’t enough coolant, the reactor is in danger of overheating and could suffer severe core damage. Large amounts of toxic radioactive material could then be released into the air. Because of cutting costs at reactors in an effort to stay competitive, however, safety measures and security alike are inadequate.
“When money is the bottom line, safety is somewhere in second, third, or fourth place,” said Block. “But you can’t afford that if you’re guarding the most dangerous material on earth. If there’s going to be a nuclear renaissance, then there has to be a safety renaissance. You don’t see that right now.”
This pledge from the Obama administration comes at a time when it is trying to get bipartisan support for broader environmental and energy policies. While this concession on nuclear energy signals to Republicans that the administration is willing to compromise on some issues, President Obama still emphasized the need for supporting other alternative clean energy sources.
“Even when we have differences, we cannot allow those differences to prevent us from making progress. On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can’t keep on being mired in the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs,” he said.
Last year, the House passed legislation on climate change that included a cap-and-trade measure, but the bill has since languished in the Senate.
President Obama has said that compared to a similar coal plant, the new nuclear plant would cut carbon pollution by 16 million tons each year – the equivalent of taking 3.5 million cars off the road.
However, environmental groups have advocated other methods that would work better, while being more economically beneficial.
“Particularly when government resources are concerned, this money spent on nuclear energy could be spent on something better, cleaner, safer, with other benefits as well,” argued Dorner. “If we invested this money into retrofitting people’s homes and buildings, we would have an immediate cut in emissions, and it would save people money in the long run.”