12 February 2012
NEW U.S. NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS
I find this news to be particularly disturbing. CNN reports that "The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved licenses to build two new nuclear reactors Thursday, the first authorized in over 30 years .... The 5-member NRC voted in favor of the licenses four to one, with Chairman Gregory Jaczko dissenting. Jaczko said the new licenses don't go far enough in requiring the builders to incorporate lessons learned from the Japanese nuclear disaster last year.
"Although new nuclear reactors have come online in the United States within the last couple of decades ~ the last one started operation in 1996 ~ the NRC hasn't issued a license to build a new reactor since 1978, a year before the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. Reactors that have opened in the last decades received their initial licenses before 1978. The combination of the Three Mile Island incident and the high costs of nuclear power turned many utilities away from the technology.
"The new reactors are a Westinghouse design called the AP 1000. Together they are expected to cost $14 billion and provide 2200 megawatts of power, enough to power 1 million homes. The plants are being built with the help of a conditional $8.3 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. The loan guarantee is part of DOE's broader loan program that has been criticized for backing companies like Solyndra, the bankrupt maker of solar panels.
"Critics have said the containment walls of the AP 1000 aren't strong enough to withstand a terrorist attack .... a coalition of nine mostly regional anti-nuclear groups say the current design is not safe. They plan on challenging Thursday's decision in federal court. In addition to fears of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, critics also point out that the nation still has no long term plan for the disposal of nuclear waste. The waste, which is highly radioactive, is currently stored at the plants themselves while the federal government continues its decades-long search for a permanent disposal facility. There are currently 104 operating nuclear reactors at 64 plants across the country (see map above, click to enlarge). Half are over 30 years old.
"Nuclear power provides the country with about 18% of its electricity. Coal is the nation's largest source for electricity, providing 43% of our energy, while natural gas makes up another 25%, according to the Energy Information Agency. Renewables [hydroelectric dams, wind, biomass, solar, and geothermal] make up the remaining 14%."
Would you like to know how close your home is to a nuclear power plant? Here is a link to a website where you can input your address or ZIP code, and generate a satellite map showing your location and the distance to the nearest facility, with a red line linking the two. Two concentric circles surround the power plant ~ a smaller red circle representing the ten-mile radius within which the air would be unsafe to breathe in the event of a nuclear catastrophe, and a larger pink circle representing the fifty-mile radius within which food and water would be unsafe.
Three Mile Island in 1979. Chernobyl in 1986. Fukushima in 2011. The threat of a meltdown, the lack of safe disposal of radioactive nuclear waste (which remains radioactive for up to a million years), the high cost of construction and insurance, the threat of destruction from an earthquake or from terrorism .... in my mind, these costs do not outweigh the single benefit of clean power. Better, safer, less expensive alternative solutions exist. Here is just one of many. Like devising clean, high-mileage alternatives to fossil fuel-burning internal combustion engines for automobiles, and devising clean, productive alternatives to nuclear power have been within our grasp for decades. The creativity and the technology are there. It only requires the will to set aside the objections of wealthy companies which have a vested interest in the status quo, and making the decision to move ahead to a sustainable future.