In March 2002, during a scheduled refueling outage at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ohio, workers discovered that boric acid deposits had gnawed a "pineapple-sized" hole into the six-inch-thick steel cap bolted to the top of the reactor. Had the corrosion gone just a third of an inch deeper, radioactive steam would have flooded the containment dome, and Davis-Besse might have been the next Three Mile Island.
As frightening as the near-accident was the way Davis-Besse owners FirstEnergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded: by soft-pedaling procedural flaws and scapegoating plant workers, in particular Andrew Siemaszko, a systems engineer who they claimed had failed to report the corrosion. The NRC has since barred Siemaszko from working in the nuclear industry, and in 2006 he was indicted on five counts of lying to the government and falsifying records. But documents show that Siemaszko repeatedly told his employers the reactor head needed a thorough cleaning. FirstEnergy didn't complete that job because it was taking too long (keeping the reactor idle was costing the company $1 million a day)—and the NRC delayed a scheduled inspection of the reactor at FirstEnergy's request.
Watchdog or Lapdog?
The Davis-Besse incident puts into sharp relief a history of regulatory neglect that goes back for decades. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has counted 47 incidents since 1979 in which the NRC failed to adequately address issues at nuclear power plants—until the troubles got so bad the plants had to be shut down for repairs. In some cases, "the NRC allowed reactors with known safety problems to continue operating for months, sometimes years, without requiring owners to fix the problems."
There's evidence, too, that the commission has tolerated serious lapses in security, even after 9/11. In March 2007, an anonymous whistleblower wrote a letter to the NRC claiming that guards at Exelon's Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania were "coming into work exhausted after working excessive overtime" and thus "sleeping on duty at an alarming rate." The NRC ignored the letter until a guard videotaped the naps in progress and WCBS in New York aired the tape. The Project on Government Oversight claims a skilled infiltrator would need just 45 seconds to penetrate the area where Peach Bottom stores its spent fuel.
The corporation that provides those sleepy guards, Wackenhut, has also been accused of cheating on security exercises: One DOE inspector general's report found that in 2003 guards had been tipped off in advance about security drills at a government nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The same year, Wackenhut was fired from Entergy's Indian Point plant in New York after guards there admitted they had been improperly armed and trained.
Critics often point out that the NRC is funded by industry fees; despite his cautious support of nuclear power, Obama declared it "a moribund agency...captive of the industries that it regulates." (NRC spokesman Scott Burnell insists that because those fees come to the NRC through the U.S. Treasury, there's no conflict of interest. "It's not a case where the industry is handing us a check," he says.)
Dave Lochbaum, UCS's nuclear-safety expert, believes the problem at the NRC is a lack of money—and congressional attention. "There have been more hearings on lunches in the White House," he notes, "than on whether the NRC's doing a good job."
The French Connection
Just as there are arguments against public investment in nuclear power, there are arguments for it—and one huge living example. France shifted from oil-burning electric plants to nuclear during the oil crisis of the early '70s, and over the past 20 years it has invested $160 billion in nuclear programs, making the country the largest exporter of nuclear electricity in the European Union. Sixteen percent of the world's nuclear power is generated in France. And where once the French were buying nuclear technology from the United States, now it's the other way round: 6 of the 20 applications expected to be submitted to the NRC before 2010 are for the U.S. Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) designed by the French conglomerate Areva.
Instead of just two coolant loops like the traditional "Generation II" reactor, the EPR has four. If one leaks, another kicks in: No more Three Mile Islands. "The EPR has more defensive depth than reactors created for the U.S. market," acknowledges Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the UCS.
His cautious approval of the EPR is significant: Two years ago, Dan Hirsch of the anti-nuclear group Committee to Bridge the Gap warned me not to make too much of the alleged environmentalist enthusiasm for nuclear power. "All of the people supporting it now supported it before," he argued. "It's not news. But when the Union of Concerned Scientists comes out in favor of nuclear, now that will be news."
That hasn't happened exactly: The UCS remains ambivalent about nuclear power, and its position papers reflect deep worries about the technology. But as far as the UCS is capable of liking a reactor, it likes the EPR.
Lyman stresses that the EPR's improved safety doesn't mean that Areva "is a warm and fuzzy company." It only means it designed the EPR to meet the safety standards of the European Union, which happen to be better than ours. "The NRC's whole presumption is that the current reactors are safe enough," Lyman explains. "The NRC is afraid that if it makes too much fuss about how the new ones are safer than old ones, it will mean that the old ones aren't safe enough.
"An opportunity is being squandered," he adds. "If this renaissance is going to happen, you're going to build a new fleet of reactors to last 60, 80, 100 years. Why not lock in a safer reactor design?"
The $50 Billion Question
In 1960, the price of a brand-new light-water reactor hovered around $68 million, just under what it cost to build a new coal plant at the time. (Actual costs were often higher, but eager manufacturers offered "turnkey" plants at a fixed price, absorbing any overruns.) Having recouped their start-up costs, these older reactors now produce electricity—a fifth of the country's power, all in all—at prices that easily compete with coal. But a new plant will have a harder time breaking even: An Areva reactor may start at $3 or $4 billion, already twice as much as a coal plant, but actual construction costs and interest will probably boost total plant cost to $9 billion.
Which is why not a single one will get built without help from the government, says Craig Nesbit of Chicago-based Exelon. "These are huge capital projects," he says. "The largest capital projects on a private scale you can build. We wouldn't be building them without loan guarantees." Nuclear lobbyists have been asking for $50 billion in such guarantees, which, they point out, are given to other industries, including wind and solar: "There's nothing exotic about it," Nesbit says. Companies also want "production tax credits" for the actual power they generate, on the order of a penny or two per kilowatt, also akin to wind energy. So far, Congress has pledged up to $6 billion worth of production tax credits for new nuclear plants. But in 2007, it capped loan guarantees for plant construction at $18.5 billion—scarcely enough to fund a couple of reactors. "We considered that a win for our side," says anti-nuclear activist Becker.
The industry does get another massive taxpayer-funded benefit, however: Since 1957, plant operators have been protected by the Price-Anderson Act, which limits their liability in a catastrophic accident. The 2005 energy bill updated the act, which required reactor operators to carry insurance policies worth $300 million and contribute $95 million to an accident compensation fund. The rest is covered by taxpayers—not a bad deal, considering that it cost $1 billion to clean up after Three Mile Island.
The debate over whether nuclear power deserves this kind of public investment is second only to the debate over whether reactors can ever be safe. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, long a foe of nuclear power, argues that "about three-quarters of all electricity we use in North America can be saved cheaper than just running a coal or nuclear plant, even if the capital costs of the plant were zero." Lovins has argued for 30 years that redirecting nuclear investments toward energy efficiency, solar, wind, or tiny gas turbines that could be located in every neighborhood would yield carbon-free power much faster, without the federally mandated insurance policy. Nuclear power, he's famously said, "is like cutting butter with a chainsaw."
But wind and solar have still not fully conquered their intermittency issues: Wind power works only when the wind blows; solar panels are no good at night. "Distributed micropower" could make progress fast; efficiency would do even better; and we should look forward to the day when they put the mammoth, centralized energy providers that feed our national grid out of business. But given the current economic structure of our energy market, can any of those things quickly replace coal? And how fast? Barring a president who can infuse us with the political will to roll out a Jimmy Carter-style conservation plan, electricity demand will continue to rise. We may be stuck with our devil of a dilemma.
The Atomic Age has left behind many kinds of radioactive garbage, from the rags that mopped up hot spills to the concrete from decommissioned reactors to the liquid residue of plutonium warheads. Some is low-level waste, already tucked away in various locations, from Hanford in southwestern Washington state to Barnwellin South Carolina. The waste fuel from nuclear reactors is high-level stuff that will remain dangerously radioactive for millions of years. In volume it's not that much: All the detritus from a half-century of civilian nuclear power "can fit on a football field piled six meters high," says Harold McFarlane, deputy associate laboratory director for nuclear programs at Idaho National Laboratory. "It grows at about three yards a year [in length]." But we still have no place to put it.
Since Congress in 1987 picked Yucca Mountain as the repository for the country's high-level waste, the state of Nevada has sued several times to block it, mostly on the grounds that the Department of Energy relied on bad science to select the spot: Among other things, an earthquake fault runs under it, and water percolates through the porous volcanic tuff. (When I visited after a wet desert winter in 2005, Yucca—which the feds have always characterized as arid—was positively green.)
The repository's most recent opening date was set for 2017. But that date "is clearly out the window," says Ward Sproat, who directs the Yucca project for the DOE. "Based on what I'm seeing right now it's a two- to three-year slip from that." Others predict that the $11 billion facility won't open at all. Still, the DOE has announced that it will file its long-awaited license application in June. For now, nearly all the nation's spent-fuel assemblies sit at individual reactor sites in water-filled basins about the size of swimming pools but 30 feet deeper, and reinforced with concrete. Most of the pools are close to full and, according to a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences, vulnerable to terrorist attack.
If Yucca Mountain ever does open, another perplexing problem emerges: transporting waste from the 200-plus reactors around the country. Trains can come off their rails; sabotage and hijackings happen. According to a map the state of Nevada circulates, only the Dakotas, Montana, and Rhode Island lie outside planned nuclear waste transportation routes.
DOE spokesman Allen Benson, who gives tours of Yucca Mountain to journalists, contends that "we've been shipping nuclear waste around the country since the beginning of the atomic age." Still, the DOE intends to build a dedicated rail line 300 miles into the Nevada desert and instruct residents along its route in how to respond to emergencies. Everyone along the route will know where those trains are going. And what they carry.
So why don't we do like they do in France, where they recycle the fuel from their own 59 reactors, along with some from other countries, into neat little piles of useful radionuclides? By dissolving nuclear waste in acids and separating the isotopes, they can reduce 20 years' waste from a family of four's electricity use to a glasslike nugget the size of a cigarette lighter.
France's eager embrace of nuclear technology has yielded some spectacular benefits. The country, which relies on nuclear for nearly 80 percent of its electricity, emits only two tons of carbon dioxide per person per year, less than half the U.S. load. But its reprocessing operations, as with Britain's notoriously leaky site at Sellafield, have racked up such a roster of problems that in the United States they'd be shut down as gross violators of the Clean Water Act. Every year Areva, the French conglomerate that handles reprocessing, dumps so much radioactive liquid into the Channel that, says Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, "there are certain beaches where the effluent pipe is where you can get a suntan at night.
"I'm not going to say the French are 'no blood, no foul,'" Lochbaum told me, "but they're not quite as concerned about effluents as we are. They tend to believe more in 'the solution to pollution is dilution.'" They are, however, in violation of European Union pollution regulations—largely because the waste contains the dangerous isotope technetium, which so far no one has found a way to remove.