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John LaForge: Nuclear power might be safe or cheap, but never safe and cheap

John LaForge: Nuclear power might be safe or cheap, but never safe and cheap

Point Beach

Point Beach Nuclear Power Plant is on Lake Michigan near Two Rivers.

Wisconsin legislators are seeking repeal of a 33-year-old moratorium on building nuclear reactors here without having first found a solution for managing high-level radioactive waste. Since no solution is in hand, the state is permanently saddled with three large reactors on Lake Michigan (one at Kewaunee is closed), another shut-down reactor on the Mississippi River near La Crosse, and a research reactor on Madison’s University of Wisconsin campus. Radioactive waste just keeps accumulating onsite.

Yet in spite of the problem of corrosive, hot, cancer-causing, deadly waste that is radioactive for 1 million years, the Legislature has been captured by industry lobbyists who love a good yarn like the one about clean, safe, cheap nuclear power.

At a state Senate committee hearing Jan. 5, several dozen people testified for and against the repeal (S.B. 288), and the “what could go wrong?” crowd spoke up for a theoretical future of safe and cheap reactors. They forget that reactor safety costs an astronomical amount of money. Others complained that the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, waste dump proposal was canceled for political rather than scientific reasons, not recognizing that their own bill is thoroughly political and frighteningly anti-scientific. In fact, the Yucca Mountain plan faced over 290 unresolved scientific roadblocks that stood in the way of licensing approval at the time it was canceled.

At the hearing, Al Gedicks testified against the repeal bill with brevity and punch. Gedicks is an environmental sociologist, professor emeritus at UW-La Crosse, and executive secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council, a statewide environmental group.

What Gedicks reported deserves a wide audience, so here are some excerpts:

“(I)f Wisconsin’s common sense moratorium on new nuclear power plants is repealed, the U.S. Department of Energy will have all the more reason to reconsider the Wolf River Batholith as a permanent (high-level) waste repository."

“The idea that nuclear power is clean defies common sense. Would a truly 'clean energy' source produce 'one of the most hazardous substances on earth,' according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office? Of course not. (US GAO, 'Commercial Nuclear Waste: Effects of a Termination of the Yucca Mountain Repository Program and Lessons Learned,' Washington, D.C., April 2011)"

“The argument that nuclear power is affordable is not supported by the evidence. The Toshiba-Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors under construction at Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle and SCANA’s VC Summer at South Carolina are at least 39 months delayed, with more delays expected. They are also billions over budget. Plant Vogtle was originally estimated at $14 billion for two reactors and is now nearly $21 billion."

“Nuclear power, no matter the reactor design, cannot address climate change in time. Renewables are faster to deploy and can provide low-carbon power more cheaply than nuclear and without the dangers of nuclear waste."

“Dr. Arjun Makhijani at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research emphasizes that: ‘An objective assessment of the facts leads to the clear conclusion that nuclear power is already economically obsolete, quite apart from a number of other considerations. The same amount of money can produce far greater CO2 reductions with wind and solar energy than with nuclear.’"

“These are just some of the most obvious and compelling reasons to preserve Wisconsin’s common sense nuclear power moratorium. … Nine states have banned the construction of new reactors until the waste problem is solved or until substantial progress is made on the issue."

“The DOE is desperate to find a host for a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste and Wisconsin is high on the list of potential sites because of the granite bedrock of the Wolf River Batholith in northeastern Wisconsin. In the 1980s the DOE ranked Wisconsin’s Wolf River Batholith as Number Two for a second high-level nuclear waste repository."

“The only existing geologic repository for nuclear waste in this country is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. … On Valentine’s Day 2014, plutonium and other radioactive elements were accidentally released into the atmosphere from the WIPP site. One millionth of a gram of plutonium, if inhaled into your lungs, can cause lung cancer. 'What makes this event so disturbing,' said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear waste expert and a former assistant to the energy secretary, 'is that radiation went half a mile up the shaft into the open environment. Twenty-two workers were exposed to small amounts of radiation.' The site has been shut down since the accident."

“There is no good reason to expose Wisconsin communities and Indian tribes to the risks of radioactive contamination when there are nuclear-free and carbon-free renewable energy technologies that are cleaner, safer, faster and cheaper. Let’s not repeal the nuclear moratorium law simply because the nuclear industry can’t or won’t play by the common-sense rules that have protected Wisconsin citizens for 33 years.”

John LaForge is on the staff of the nuclear watchdog group Nukewatch, located in northern Wisconsin, and edits its quarterly newsletter.

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