Wasting Away

Date: 23 Mar 1999 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Wasting Away

by David Morris
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

March 23, 1999 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

The government pushed nuclear power on the nation, assured utilities their liability would be limited, prevented states from imposing safety restrictions and promised communities they wouldn’t have to keep the decay. Well, then, who is responsible?

Twenty years ago, “The China Syndrome” opened in movie theaters around the country. Starring Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, the powerful and terrifying film depicted a near meltdown of a nuclear reactor. Two weeks later life imitated art at Three Mile Island, Pa.

The meltdown of half the core at Three Mile Island Unit 1 marked the death knell for nuclear power in this country. No nuclear reactor has been ordered since that time. But we continue to bear the economic, political and social costs of this technology. And so will our children and their children and their children. It is an instructive and sobering tale.

Back in the early 1950s, when the nuclear arms race was just beginning, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program was intended to show the world that we could harness the awful destructive capacity of nuclear power for benign purposes. Nuclear electricity was to be the star of the show, “too cheap to meter,” boasted Adm. Lewis Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954.

By 1972, nuclear power became the key to meeting future electric demand. President Richard Nixon envisioned 1,000 nuclear units operating by the year 2000. The federal government went to extraordinary lengths to make civilian reactors possible and palatable by limiting the financial liability of utilities in the event of a meltdown and preventing states from imposing stricter safety standards on nuclear plants.

Washington also promised communities hosting a nuclear power plant that they would never have to be responsible for its radioactive wastes. The government recycled used uranium until scientists reported that the process could create weapons-grade plutonium. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter banned it.

So disposal became the only option. But no community wanted to host waste that would remain lethal for thousands of years. Radioactive wastes began piling up inside nuclear power plants.

In the wake of Three Mile Island, utilities petitioned Washington to do something. In 1982, Congress responded by ordering the federal government to take possession of all nuclear wastes within 16 years. That meant finding a safe, permanent repository. In 1987 the search narrowed down to Nevada.

Yet today, $5 billion in studies and tunneling later, the Energy Department has yet to conclude that Yucca Mountain is safe. The congressional deadline has passed, and a dozen nuclear facilities are storing their wastes in concrete and steel casks.

Last October a federal judge ruled that the owners of the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant are entitled to damages due to the government’s failure to dispose of the waste. Seven other nuclear plants have filed similar lawsuits. The Nuclear Energy Institute expects the ultimate tab for taxpayers will be $53 billion.

Congress may soon force Nevada to accept, on a “temporary” basis, more than 30,000 tons of radioactive fuel now stored at more than 100 civilian reactors in 31 states. This assault on our federalist system is all the more dismaying because Nevada has no nuclear reactors of its own.

Many oppose dumping all our radioactive eggs in Nevada’s basket for scientific reasons. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, argues that nuclear wastes should stay where they are until we devise a permanent, comprehensive solution.

The temporary storage technology proposed in Nevada is no better than the current on-site cask system, and it would create the danger of transportation accidents, which could leak elements like Cesium 137.

Makhijani points out that not only spent fuel rods, but nuclear plants themselves will need to be transported. If you wait 50 years before dismantling the plants, the amount of nuclear waste to be disposed of declines by more than 90 percent.

Once deemed too cheap to meter, nuclear electricity has proven to be the most expensive power source in world history, a burden not only to our pocketbooks but to our collective conscience. We have abdicated personal responsibility and violated some basic tenets of political fairness. On this, the anniversary of Three Mile Island’s near disaster, we would do well to ponder the consequences of our pursuit of the nuclear dream.

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.