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A Word About Nuclear Power

Paul Kando

At the end of World War II, the Atomic Eenergy Commission’s mandate was to maintain US nuclear weapons capability. Accordingly, Chairman Lewis Strauss promised nuclear electricity “too cheap to meter”, A massive government commitment followed, involving billions of dollars invested, succeeding to shift the focus away from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus began The nuclear arms race could thus be camouflaged by both sides as work on the “Peaceful Atom”.

Kernkraftwerk Grafenrheinfeld Nuclear Power Plant
photo credit: Wikipedia

From the get-go, this dangerous electric power source was promoted and massively subsidized under a false pretext. The industry grew without much planning or standardized reactor design. Each new plant was a new engineering challenge. From roughly 100 megawatts in 1957 generating capacity grew to well over 1,000 by the 1970s, even as the industry began to decline. The last new US plant was completed in 1974. Nuclear plants are expensive to build and have short safe lifespans. When the Fukushima Daiichi reactors ruptured in 2011, spewing radioactivity around the northern hemisphere, they were only forty years old.

Recently, with rising concern about global warming and fossil fuels, the fading nuclear power industry found a new selling point. A few climate activists began advocating atomic energy as an answer to CO2 emissions and the corporate media began reporting a “nuclear renaissance” allegedly led by hordes of environmentalists. But this re-launch of an environmentally benign Peaceful Atom is mostly wishful thinking.

Nuclear electricity doesn’t reduce global warming, it exacerbates it. All reactors emit radioactive Carbon-14. There are substantial CO2 emissions during mining, milling, and enriching the reactor fuel. Several studies conclude that new reactor construction would significantly worsen the climate crisis. Attempts to recycle spent reactor fuel or weapons material have failed. After six decades, no country has a proven long-term storage strategy for high-level waste. New nuclear projects in France, Finland, South Carolina, and Georgia have cost-overruns in the millions and are years behind schedule. Five projects pushed by the Washington State Public Power System caused the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

There are roughly 100 reactors licensed to operate in the US, and 450 worldwide. About a dozen U.S. plants were shut down in the last few years, with half dozen more due to shut for financial reasons. Plummeting fracked gas and renewable energy prices have caused their demise. Operating and maintenance costs soar as efficiency and performance decline, even as an aging skilled work-force turns continued operations into a challenge.

But the nuclear power industry is not giving up. It now wants billions in state-based bailouts. Its propaganda capitalizes on the media’s tendency to present false equivalencies in its efforts to present a “balanced” picture. Case in point: the recent Nova special on public TV After a devastating narrative of Fukushima several years after the disaster, the show ends on a ‘happier ending’ note, citing two improvements to reactor design, which eliminate the need for reactor cooling water. However nuclear power’s other problems remain unaddressed and there are no orders for these expensive “new” reactors either.

Critical thinking advised.