Too cheap to meter?


The Bush Administration’s energy policy calls for expansion of the nation’s nuclear energy capacity. Vice President Cheney’s energy task force recommended that the administration relicense and increase the capacity of older plants, expedite applications to build new facilities, provide tax breaks for the nuclear industry and invest in research and development.

Increasing reliance on nuclear power is hardly a new idea. President Eisenhower was an early proponent, and President Nixon (Cheney’s old boss) did everything he could to realize his prediction that the U.S. would have 1,000 nuclear power plants by the year 2000 (there are 103 reactors today, providing roughly 20 percent of our electricity). But for the efforts of a determined grassroots anti-nuclear movement, Nixon’s prophecy might have come true.

For those who believe that Bush is both competent and sincere, this policy must be exceptionally difficult to understand. If Bush is serious enough about the war on terror to revoke the civil rights of thousands of Americans, why is he calling for construction of easy targets for terrorists? If a nuclear facility blew up, the resulting radiation cloud would dwarf the ones at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. A simple truck bomb could do the trick. Nuclear facilities have notoriously lax security, and given how often incompetent facility employees have brought us within inches of a disaster (within three-eighths of an inch at FirstEnergy’s Davis Besse plant), a terrorist who got into a facility could easily trigger a meltdown. Bush wants to have nuclear waste shipped from all over the country to a permanent storage facility in Yucca Mountain. This would be the greatest mass of nuclear material ever gathered in one place, and both the trucks transporting the waste and the facility itself are prime targets.

Of course, the risk of disaster was high long before September 11. Lax security, incompetent management and a hands-off regulatory approach have brought U.S. reactors to the brink of meltdown on numerous occasions. These near-catastrophes tend not to get reported, and neither do foreign disasters. Indeed, most people do not even know that the largest nuclear catastrophe in history since Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred not at Chernobyl, but at Chelyabinsk in Russia (its Cold War code name was “Mayak”). From 1949 until 1956, the Soviets poured nuclear waste directly into the Techa River, giving tens of thousands of people living downstream doses ranging from 4 to 57 times greater than at Chernobyl. In 1957, a nuclear waste dump there exploded, sending at least 70 metric tons of waste into the sky. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to radiation levels comparable to those at Chernobyl. In 1967, after the Soviets had been dumping nuclear waste in Lake Karahay for 16 years, a cyclone swept the lake’s irradiated silt into the air, affecting nearly half a million people.

The Soviets covered up all three disasters, but the CIA knew about every one of them. The U.S. government refused to publicize the information because it did not want Americans to know how dangerous nuclear power could be. Given that Chernobyl will ultimately cause between 50,000 and 250,000 deaths, we can only imagine how much “collateral damage” the U.S. accepted when it helped the U.S.S.R. deceive the people living in and around Chelyabinsk. The U.S. did not treat its own citizens much better: U.S. facilities like Hanford Nuclear Reservation secretly poisoned rivers for decades and released extraordinary amounts of radiation into the air.

All of this risk makes nuclear power decidedly unprofitable. Even Cheney acknowledges that the nuclear industry could not survive without government subsidies. Federal government gifts to the nuclear industry totaled $7.1 billion in 1996. About two thirds of federal research and development money goes to the nuclear industry. A utility’s liability is capped at $7 billion, even though a meltdown could create costs of over $300 billion (never mind the thousands of deaths). If the industry had to insure against liability in the absence of a cap, such insurance would cost $3 billion per year. The government has lost $10 billion producing enriched uranium fuel for the industry and lost at least another $2 billion privatizing the operation. The Yucca Mountain waste storage site (which is, incidentally, the least geologically sound of the possible sites the government considered) will cost $40 or $50 billion to build. Taxpayers will ultimately have to shoulder at least $30 billion in plant decommission costs, and Vice President Cheney has proposed what will amount to billions of dollars in decommission fund tax breaks for the industry.

Anyone who wants to know why the administration would adopt this ludicrous policy should examine Bush’s FEC filings. The nuclear industry, military contractors and numerous other companies who profit from nuclear power were quite generous in the months leading up to the 2000 election.