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Editorial: Nuclear power's failed promise

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Posted on August 29, 2013 |
By Angelo Lynn



Not that long ago, nuclear power was the promise to the world’s looming energy crisis. Back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s when nuclear power was spreading its wings, the continental U.S. was exhausting its known crude oil reserves at an alarming rate and we were becoming dependent on oil from the Middle East. Long gas lines at service stations in the 1973 oil crisis, amid black outs in New York City, punctuated the need for diverse power sources.

Nuclear power promised an unending source of electrical generation without the negative impacts of air pollution caused by oil-generating power plants. That pollution would soon magnify itself in the form of “acid rain,” that scary phenomenon that diseased many trees in the higher elevations of Vermont and New England.

Such were the good ole days.

Today’s worry is an overheated world generated by the release of carbon dioxide particles into the atmosphere. Renewable energy is today’s promise, but its production still only meets a fraction of the nation’s need. Other power sources are a necessity to keep the wheels of commerce moving today and for the next few decades. There’s a good argument to be made that nuclear power should be among those sources.

But nuclear power’s demise, as witnessed by Tuesday’s announcement that Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant will cease operation in late 2014,  in today’s marketplace is two-fold: first, it’s not competitive with the cheaper cost of power generated by natural gas; second, nuclear power plants are time bombs that produce a hazardous waste the world has yet to figure out how to safely dispose of.

Not only is there the possibility of a melt-down like Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1979 or the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, or damage to a plant by outside forces like the 2011 tsunami at Fukusima, Japan, but the life-span of the spent fuel rods makes decommissing a plant extremely expensive and time-consuming. Mothballing a plant, which is what Entergy says it prefers to do at VY, creates a long-term hazard and a potential dead zone in host communities for 50-60 years. And that’s if everything goes as planned. If clean-up costs exceed amounts set aside by the power company (currently set at $560 million but experts  estimate final costs to be $250 million or more higher), let’s all hope Vermont is first in line to get those extra millions from Entergy before it files for bankruptcy protection. Entergy’s stock price (the company owns nuclear power plants across the nation) has plunged in recent years.

Naturally, today’s focus is less about long-term energy policy and more about the eventual loss of 650 highly paid employees — about 40 percent of whom live in the state, while the other 60 percent live in neighboring states (mainly New Hampshire.) Jobs will be phased out over the next 15 months, while other jobs will be created to manage the decommissioning of the plant. Because of the mutliplier effect of jobs and the spending power created by each position, the impact on the region will be significant.

That’s hugely important and the governor and area legislators have pledged to devote ample resources to try to find suitable jobs and create new ones in the area.

As importantly, however, is trying to decipher lessons learned from Vermont Yankee’s 41-year arc. What’s striking is how wrong the energy industry has been in terms of predicting energy supply and nuclear power’s domestic impact. From a safety, environmental and economic standpoint, nuclear power has not lived up to its promise. Today, oil is more plentiful than expected; natural gas is abundant; energy prices are low. Safety is a relative term in this context: while there have only been 33 significant accidents recorded since 1952 (and only five in the U.S.), the potential for problems last lifetimes and finding a solution to storage of spent fuel rods remains unresolved.

The lessons learned make renewable energy the obvious choice for the future. Getting there is today’s conundrum.

Angelo S. Lynn

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