BY BRIAN LIBBY
A little over 65 years ago, my grandfather walked the barren streets of Nagasaki, Japan as part of the US Navy and America's occupying force after the end of World War II. The landscape was all but devoid of buildings, and the remaining citizens had been hit with intense radiation.
Then in 2004 and 2006, I made my own trips to Japan. I remember telling my grandpa, shortly before he passed away in 2007, about going to the most vibrant urban place I had ever encountered, Tokyo, and how thankful I was that the nation, which for some inexplicable reason has drawn three generations of us there, could finally be seen prospering. By that time, the economic boom of Japan's 1980s and given way to more than a decade of economic decline. But that's nothing compared to radiation.
Flash forward to 2011, and it's a bitter irony that the only nation to suffer a nuclear bomb detonation on its soil is the same nation reminding us that nuclear power is a terrible mistake.
Yes, it's "clean" power in that it doesn't send carbon or pollution into the atmosphere like fossil fuels. Yes, nuclear plant accidents like Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are the exception to the rule. But even one exception is arguably too many when a nuclear meltdown has the capacity to kill millions of people over decades.
In today's New York Times, Eric Lichtblau reports that the effect of Japan's post-tsunami nuclear accident at the Fukushima plant is calling into question "a decade-long renaissance of nuclear energy — a resurgence that began in earnest under President George W. Bush and has led President Obama to seek a $36 billion expansion in loan guarantees to finance reactors at a time when other programs are being slashed."
It seems the uptake in nuclear energy investing over the past decade caught many unaware. Despite the millions or billions committed by Congress and the chief executive, most Americans associate nuclear power either with its past accidents or by the skewing satire of The Simpsons, where three-eyed fish swim outside Springfield's power plant and a clueless buffoon would rather chomp donuts than carry out his duties as safety inspector.
Nuclear has in some respects over the past decade ridden the coattails of sustainable and renewable energy. Because it doesn't emit carbon into the atmosphere, the argument goes, nuclear is a way to reduce greenhouse gases.
“It was a brilliant campaign,” Tyson Slocum, an energy expert at Public Citizen, which opposes nuclear energy because of concerns about its safety, security and cost, told Lichtblau. "While everyone was focused on shutting down coal plants, they had a couple of years to themselves to just talk to the American public in very sophisticated ad campaigns and to reintroduce a generation of Americans to nuclear power,” he said. “That was very powerful.”
Nuclear industry firms and their employees also contributed more than $4.6 million in the last decade to members of Congress from both parties, including President Obama's senatorial and presidential campaign
Yet it's another bitterly ironic turn of phrase to call nuclear "clean" energy. If it's so clean, how come we have to bury the waste a mile underground and wait a thousand years for it to subside?
But nuclear executives in America, ready to defend their turf, have already held 20 briefings for Washington lawmakers and others about the events in Japan and the potential lessons learned at home. "They have been putting out guidance on increased safeguards for reactors, and giving reporters tours of nuclear plants," Lichtblau reports. "The message: Despite the events in Japan, nuclear is a safe, affordable and “clean” energy source that does not spew harmful carbons into the environment or rely on foreign producers."
“We surely should avoid a rush to judgment,” Jeff Merrifield, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in one of a series of videos that the Nuclear Energy Institute, the leading trade group, has put out on its website since Japan’s tsunami and ensuing damage reactors. The United States, he Merrifield, should “continue to move forward with building those plants because it’s the right thing for our nation.”
However, polls in the last two weeks have shown dimmed support for nuclear power. Funny how a hellacious nuclear accident will do that.
“The risk is just so great if there’s a screw-up,” said David Hamilton, director of energy programs for the Sierra Club, which opposes the expansion of nuclear energy (also in Lichtblau's story). “The nuclear renaissance was already hanging by a thread, and the Japanese disaster may have cut the thread.”
It all begs the question: how much nuclear power does the US use? That can be a confusing question. In the media, for example, prominent US officials have stated recently that the country gets 20 percent of its energy right now from nuclear power. In fact, nuclear power is responsible for 8.6 percent of total US energy consumption.
20.7 percent of total US electricity consumption, including electrical energy generation and transmission losses, is attributed to nuclear power. The 20.7%, or 8.39 QBtu, is made up of 2.19 QBtu of electricity delivered to the place of use, and 6.2 QBtu of energy losses from generation (waste heat) and transmission.
The nonprofit Architecture 2030 has also provided these figures on nuclear:
There are 104 nuclear reactors currently operating in the US with a net summer capacity of 100,755 MW. Nuclear energy provides 3.1% of total US delivered energy; 8.6% of total U.S. energy consumption is attributed to nuclear energy. Nuclear energy provides 17.1% of total US delivered electricity, while 20.7% of total national electricity consumption is attributed to nuclear energy. It takes approximately thirty-seven 1000MW nuclear reactors to produce one Quad (quadrillion Btu) of delivered energy.
Of the 104 nuclear reactors in the US, 4.8 percent are older than 40 years, 38.5 percent are older than 35 years, and over half are older than 30 years.
Nuclear reactors in the U.S. are licensed to operate for 40 years. Owners can file with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for operating extensions. It costs approximately $300-500 million to decommission a nuclear plant. There are 13 potential reactors that are currently under review for a new commercial license.
Subsidies for ongoing nuclear reactors range from 0.74 - 4.16 c/kWh for investor owned utilities (IOUs) and 1.53 - 5.77 c/kWh for publicly owned utilities (POUs). Subsidies for new reactors range from 5.01 - 11.42 c/kWh for IOUs and 4.20 - 8.68 c/kWh for POUs. The IAEA estimates that approximately 20 percent of nuclear reactors around the world are currently operating in areas of significant seismic activity.
Here in the Northwest, like many regions of the country, we went through the complete cycle with nuclear power. Trojan nuclear power plant once stood alongside the Columbia River in Rainier, Oregon. After being built in 1970, Trojan eventually represented more than 12% of the electrical generation capacity of Oregon. But it was shut down twenty years early, after a cracked steam tube released radioactive gas into the plant in 1992.
Environmental opposition dogged Trojan from its inception, including non-violent protests organized by the Trojan Decommissioning Alliance starting in 1977. Scores of demonstrators were arrested, and in December 1977 a jury found 96 protesters not guilty of criminal trespass. There was another protest in August 1978, which led to about 280 arrests.
Most of the protesting in America had come over nuclear weapons, not nuclear power. But as is our legacy, Oregonians were progressive and ahead of the curve in seeing the dangers of nuclear power. The very danger that motivated protestors in the 1970s, a radioactive accident, happened just as they feared. A few years ago, the cooling tower's demolition was cause for celebration.
It's not to say anyone is looking to bring nuclear power back to Oregon. We are lucky to receive an overwhelming majority much of our power from Bonneville Dam, and the region has also become a leader in sustainable buildings and energy - although much of our power also comes from coal.
Oregon's population is also growing relatively fast. Recently released 2010 census data shows that between 2000 and 2010 the state grew to over 3.8 million, a 12 percent increase. By 2030 the Willamette Valley alone is projected to be 3.7 million, but Oregon could become even more populous than projected given the southwest’s ongoing problems with water and heat. We need to assure that the nuclear option doesn’t rear its head another decade or two in the future when the public has begun to forget, again, of the deaths and cancers wrought by these disasters.
It’s not to say there isn’t always some kind of tradeoff. Eschewing nuclear could mean the United States or other countries turn more to fossil fuels in the interim years, until alternative energy makes up the gap. Fossil fuel emissions are of course not only a public health problem, but one changing the climate of the planet through too much carbon.
What's more, as a March 23 Good magazine story argued pretty successfully, technically deaths around the world from nuclear energy-related accidents are still dwarfed by the deaths caused by fossil fuels. Coal accounts for 161 deaths for every teraWatt hour (TWh) of energy produced. Oil accounts for 36. Nuclear accounts for 0.04.
Even so, when nuclear goes bad, it really goes bad. In the past it has only killed hundreds or thousands. Yet if it happens to the wrong plant in the wrong place, the death toll, once all the decades of contamination are figured in, could reach millions.
Maybe I’m just a Generation X member who remembers the nuclear protests and the fear of annihilation too vividly. Or maybe I’m just too sensitive to the headline of the day, which now happens to be rooted mostly in Japan’s ongoing struggles with the Fukushima nuclear plant. Or perhaps I’m superstitious: nuclear power seems to me like an otherworldly force with which humans were not meant to encounter, a contemporary bite into the forbidden apple that leaves a thousand-year aftertaste.
But today watching the headlines in Japan, it’s hard not to feel re-committed to defining clean energy as something that doesn’t give millions of people cancer or fish three eyes. And I think of the protestors of the ‘70s and ‘80s fighting Trojan when the mainstream culture perhaps thought they were naïve and too idealistic, but today come across as much wiser and more prophetic than the nuclear lobby doing its own brand of damage control.