“Nuclear Can Be Safe Or It Can Be Cheap … But It Can’t Be Both”

Nuclear Power Is Unsafe Because the Operators are Pinching Pennies and Cutting Corners

Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen was said in a recent interview that nuclear power can be made safe, but not at a competitive price:

[Interviewer] With air transport, it’s incredibly safe. Could nuclear power ever reach that level of safety?

[Gundersen] I have a friend who says that nuclear can be safe or it can be cheap, but it can’t be both.

***

It boils down to money. If you want to make nuclear safe, it gets to the point where it’s so costly you don’t want to build the power plant anyway … especially now with plummeting renewable costs.

So can you make a nuclear reactor safe? Yes. Can it also at the same time compete with renewables, which are, of course, higher [priced] than natural gas? And the answer is no.

Wall Street is demanding federal loan guarantees for this and of course we already subsidized Price-Anderson insurance. So Wall Street won’t spend the money to build it, and won’t insure it.

Gundersen is right.

As I noted in April:

Apologists for the nuclear power industry pretend there are no better alternatives, so we just have to suck it up and suffer through the Japanese nuclear crisis.

But this is wholly illogical. The truth is that we can store spent fuel rods in dry cask storage, which is much safer than the spent fuel rod pools used in Fukushima and many American reactors.

As the Nation pointed out:

Short of closing plants, there is a fairly reliable solution to the problem of spent fuel rods. It is called “dry cask storage.”

***

But there is a problem with dry cask storage: it costs money….

We could build a new, safer generation of nuclear power plants which have inherently safer designs, such as low-temperature reactors and thorium reactors.

But the owners of the nuclear plants can make more money with the ridiculous designs and cost-cutting measures used at Fukushima and elsewhere.

As the Christian Science Monitor notes:

*** Russian nuclear accident specialist Iouli Andreev, who as director of the Soviet Spetsatom clean-up agency helped in the efforts 25 years ago to clean up Chernobyl … said the sequence of events at Japan’s Fukushima I suggested that the plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), may have put profit before safety. The fire that broke out Tuesday in reactor No. 4′s fuel storage pond may have been caused by a desire to conserve space and money, he suggested.

“The Japanese were very greedy and they used every square inch of the space. But when you have a dense placing of spent fuel in the basin you have a high possibility of fire if the water is removed from the basin,” Andreev told Reuters….

And this is not limited to Tepco.

***

The nuclear accident was largely caused because of Tepco’s penny-pinching, just as the Gulf oil spill was caused by the fact that BP cut every corner in the book ( see this, this, this, this, and this).

***

Nobel prize winning economist Jospeph Stiglitz has been speaking out on this same theme this week.

As Linda Keenan and Janine R. Wedel note:

Stiglitz describes well the intertwining of state and private power [quoting Stiglitz]:

The personal and the political are today in perfect alignment. Virtually all U.S. senators, and most…[House] representatives…are members of the top 1 percent….are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent. When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift–through legislation prohibiting the government…from bargaining over price–it should not come as cause for wonder….Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.

Stiglitz points out that … Japan might not be facing a nuclear crisis, were it not for the fact that the very old reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant got an extension to keep operating despite safety concerns. That decision was a byproduct, critics say, of Japan’s own gamed system known as amakudari, or “descent from heaven”, a longstanding, widespread practice in which Japanese senior bureaucrats retire to high-profile positions in the private and public sectors.

As Stiglitz wrote Wednesday:

… Are there other “black swan” events waiting to happen? Unfortunately, some of the really big risks that we face today are most likely not even rare events. The good news is that such risks can be controlled at little or no cost. The bad news is that doing so faces strong political opposition – for there are people who profit from the status quo.

***

While Germany has shut down its older nuclear reactors, in the US and elsewhere, even plants that have the same flawed design as Fukushima continue to operate. The nuclear industry’s very existence is dependent on hidden public subsidies – costs borne by society in the event of nuclear disaster, as well as the costs of the still-unmanaged disposal of nuclear waste. So much for unfettered capitalism!

***

In the end, those gambling in Las Vegas lose more than they gain. As a society, we are gambling – with our big banks, with our nuclear power facilities, with our planet. As in Las Vegas, the lucky few – the bankers that put our economy at risk and the owners of energy companies that put our planet at risk – may walk off with a mint. But on average and almost certainly, we as a society, like all gamblers, will lose.

That, unfortunately, is a lesson of Japan’s disaster that we continue to ignore at our peril.

The bottom line is that if we continue to let the top 1% – who are never satisfied, but always want more, more, more – run the show without challenge from the other 99% of people in the world, we will have more Fukushimas, more Gulf oil spills and more financial meltdowns.

As one commentator passionately put it:

Make no mistake. Nuclear power can be safe… if designed by honest and prudent people. Make no mistake. The economies of nations and planets can function well, and life can continuously improve… if only real, physical goods (including gold and silver) are exchanged in transactions.

Make no mistake. Life can be good. Life can be efficient. Life can be benevolent. Life can continuously improve as years go by, and as humans learn more about the nature of reality. The reason everything is getting worse can all be traced back to the predators-that-be, the predator-class, and their endless dishonesty.

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  • ChrisA

    Nuclear power is not inert nor trapped in time like Fukushima’s 1960′s era reactors. Technologically speaking, the world has changed drastically and so has the potential for nuclear power going forward. Fortunately, the Chinese, Indians, Saudi Arabians, and other developing economies are moving forward and their large-scale efforts will likely trickle down to us in the form of reduced start-up costs.

    But why must the USA be a follower and not a leader for nuclear power in the 2nd decade of the 21st century?

    At least Bill Gates is doing something about it with this company:

    http://www.terrapower.com/home.aspx

  • Graeme

    [Interviewer] With air transport, it’s incredibly safe. Could nuclear power ever reach that level of safety?

    [Gundersen] I have a friend who says that nuclear can be safe or it can be cheap, but it can’t be both.

    Wikipedia lists some 276 aviation accidents by death tolls with over 3600 deaths in just the top 10; and, the NTSB lists 76 fatal US aviation events in November 2011 alone.

    An OECD NEA report discusses fatalities from various energy sources, including nuclear, and finds that:
    “Between 1969 and 2000 there were 2259 and 3713 fatalities in the coal and oiil energy chains respectively in OECD countries, and 18017 and 16505 fatalities in non-OECD countries. Hydro power was responsible for 29924 deaths in one incident in China. In contrast, there has only been one sever accident in nuclear power plants over this period of time (Chernobyl), which resulted in 31 fatalities. Assessment of the delayed (latent) fatalities associated with the . . . Chernobyl accident indicates numbers up to 33000 over the next 70 years assuming a linear non-threshold effect. . . . on this basis, natural background radiation would result in 1500 times as many deaths about 50 million) over the same timescale….”

    Lest you argue we should rely on wind, the New American reports 41 worker fatalities and 16 fatalities to members of the public to wind-turbine accidents.

    No deaths have yet been attributed to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (which caused 15842 deaths, injured 5890, and with over 3485 missing).

    So, bottom line, in 60 years of commercial nuclear energy use, we have less than a hundred fatalities world wide (all of whom were plant workers or emergency first-responders, and who mostly died of burns suffered from fighting the fire), and no fatalities to the general public. On the flip side, in just the US, we had almost 100 aviation-related fatalities in November 2011 alone.

    According to the Institute for Energy Research the levelized cost of nuclear is on par with fossil fuels and considerably cheaper than “renewables”.

    Based on the above, electricity from nuclear power plants is cost-effective, and safer than other electricity sources. Perhaps the interviewer should have asked how the aviation industry could be made as safe and cost-efficient as the nuclear power industry.

    Just sayin’….

    • JoeyTurner

      “So, bottom line, in 60 years of commercial nuclear energy use, we have less than a hundred fatalities world wide”
      Maybe you should write a book, Graeme: ‘How to lie and kill millions while making a comfortable living working for the nuclear industry.’ But don’t go to Japan or anywhere near Chernobyl on your book tour or you might discover that radioactivity really is dangerous.

  • Benjamin Franklin

    MSNBC tries to debunk this, but the fwads don’t even mention Chernobyl…..

    http://vitals.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/12/21/9616921-experts-discount-claims-of-us-deaths-from-japan-radiation

  • Walter Clive

    — “According to the Institute for Energy Research the levelized cost of nuclear is on par with fossil fuels and considerably cheaper than “renewables”.”

    Cost to Produce Electricity per kW hour
    Nuclear – 25% of the U.S Power supply in 2011 - 11 to 15 cents per kWh
    Geothermal (varies by location) - 4 to 30 cents per kWh
    Tidal - 2 to 5 cents per kWh
    Solar - 15 to 30 cents per kWh
    Wind (40 cents per kWh in the early 1980s) - 2.5 to 6 cents per kWh

 

 

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