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Issue Date:  September 23, 2005

Funding for nuclear energy is a flight to the past


As we watch the agonizing pictures from the Gulf Coast, it is hard not to question the wisdom, even the morality, of pouring $13 billion into the perforated pockets of the nuclear power industry. But in authorizing the Bush energy bill, Congress has once more allowed an industry that has never been self-sufficient to squander taxpayer money on a technology that can only add to the dangers already faced by the American public.

While a handful of self-described “sensible environmentalists” now insist that a magic mushrooming of nuclear reactors will save us from the indisputable and impending perils of human-caused climate change, flood-ravaged New Orleans suggests something more practical is needed to pre-empt further such climate-driven disasters.

Such an obscene chunk of change does not belong in the hands of the nuclear industry, a failed 20th century technology desperate for new handouts if it is to survive through the 21st. One of the industry’s own leaders, Dominion CEO Thomas Clapp, even declared recently he was “not building new nuclear power plants” to avoid giving Standard & Poor’s and his chief financial officer “a heart attack.” He added that development of new nuclear plants is “virtually comatose.”

The world’s most respected climate scientists agree that global warming is real, is ongoing and human-caused, and that temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate. It is an urgent problem. But nuclear power plants cannot be conjured into life by the wave of a wand. They take close to a decade to build. And we’d need 300 in the United States alone to make any dent in greenhouse gas emissions. We probably don’t have that long to offset climate change. Hundreds of wind turbines could be built in the time it takes to construct one reactor, and with less expense. No one is arguing about whether wind power is emissions-free.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Nils Diaz has called for 100 new reactors in the United States. That means 100 times more nuclear waste and makes a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant 100 times more likely. And, given that new reactors like the old ones now in use are prone to breakdowns, it multiplies the chance of a serious accident by 100 as well. Why not build 100 new wind farms instead? A toppling turbine has never rendered 16,000 square miles of land uninhabitable for centuries, as the Chernobyl accident did in Ukraine.

What Chairman Diaz has chosen to ignore is the permanently changed security landscape since 9/11. Reactors are sitting-duck terrorist targets and the consequences of a successful attack are beyond imagining. Even the Chernobyl reactor accident that spewed radiation across Ukraine, Belarus, much of Europe and even reached American shores would be dwarfed by an attack on a U.S. reactor. Our reactors are reaching the end of their 40-year life spans and consequently house radioactive inventory many times higher than Chernobyl, which had operated for only two years before the catastrophe. How can any elected official, in good conscience, agree to proliferate these pre-deployed weapons of mass destruction across our landscape rather than support construction of safer, cleaner alternatives?

Nor is anyone debating the security vulnerability of wind turbines or solar panels and certainly not efficiency and conservation. Taxpayers currently will foot the bill for any reactor catastrophe beyond the $10 billion-per-accident cap because insurance companies won’t take the risk. If that sounds like a lot, it is important to remember that the Chernobyl tab is currently more than $300 billion. Rather than fleecing taxpayers, energy efficiency puts money back into people’s pockets through savings on utility bills.

Electricity is, in any case, only a bit player on the climate change stage compared to the real culprit -- fossil-fueled vehicles. Until serious efforts are made, in this country especially, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars, buses, trucks and heavy equipment, we will make no real impact in slowing global warming.

Finally, a return to nuclear power sends the wrong message to our global partners who have shown an all-too-unhealthy eagerness to convert their “peaceful” atoms into bombs. It is disingenuous to insist on exporting this dangerous technology to other countries with the proviso that they not divert it to weapons use. The lessons of India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran and North Korea firmly contradict this thinking.

“Sensible” environmentalists, like sensible shoes, are cautious, old-fashioned and unimaginative. The United States has built its reputation on leadership and innovation and can lead the world again in a technological revolution in renewable energy. It makes no sense to revert to expensive 20th-century dinosaurs like nuclear power, which risk emitting cancer-causing radiation, when we could blaze the trail as a true leader on climate change and lead the way to a safer, more secure world.

Linda Gunter is the director of development and media relations at Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2005

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