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Nuclear Undoing

Paul Kando

Several US nuclear reactors are shutting down. Massachusetts’ Pilgrim reactor shuttered permanently on May 31. Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island Unit One will be decommissioned in September. (Unit Two melted down back in 1979.) After years of controversy and delay, two aging reactors at Indian Point, NY will soon follow. These sit next to the Hudson River atop an earthquake fault north of New York City.

Nuclear Power plant
photo credit: NPR.org

None of the 98 US reactors still operating can price-compete with wind, solar, or natural gas. Most are over twenty years old and have issues of obsolescence and decay. Some are over forty, operating far beyond their original design life.

Only two new reactors are still being built in the US, thanks in large part to $12 billion in interest-free federal loans. Georgia’s Vogtle units 3 and 4 now approach a staggering $30 billion in construction cost. Years behind schedule and way over budget, the lowest possible cost of whatever electricity these two might one day produce already far exceeds the current cost of wind and solar power. So much for the postwar myth of “nuclear electricity so cheap that it needn’t be metered”!

The soaring cost of operating decayed reactors has forced the US industry to beg gerrymandered state legislatures for huge taxpayer subsidies. Four decrepit, money-losing upstate New York reactors still run only because of a $7.6 billion handout from the state. This year’s installment on those jumped more than $50 million, despite Governor Cuomo’s promise that it would drop. Consumer groups are now fighting him in court.

Illinois has voted billions to sustain three old reactors that can’t compete with wind, solar or gas, and New Jersey is spending hundreds of millions on its money-losing nukes. In Ohio, Akron’s FirstEnergy, owner of two decrepit aging reactors, is bankrupt and trying to shed its cleanup responsibilities. So far, despite millions in “lobbyist investment” in key state officials, FirstEnergy has not been able to shaft the public with its $300 million/year bailout scheme.

Designed back in the 1960s, FirstEnergy’s Davis-Besse plant opened near Toledo in 1977. In 2002, boric acid ate an infamous “hole in the head” to within an inch of irradiating the entire Great Lakes and north coast. The owners sawed off the top of an abandoned Michigan nuke, cut through Davis-Besse’s containment building, and installed it atop the damaged reactor. Leaks are still an issue, and the radioactive shield building is crumbling along with the rest of the plant. East of Cleveland, FirstEnergy’s Perry nuclear plant, opened in 1986, is likely to be shut down, for economic reasons.

FirstEnergy and its backers are betting on Ohio’s gerrymandered legislature to gouge some $300 million from the tax- and rate-paying public. A bevy of “free market” legislators wants at least $150 million per year for the nuclear plants, and another $150 million for various unclear activities, presumably including some $8.5 million yearly for company president Chuck Jones.

FirstEnergy burns huge quantities of gas, oil, and coal but hypes its “emissions free” nukes that spew Carbon-14, heat, and radiation 24/7. The industry doesn’t want to mention or pay for its thousands of tons of radioactive waste either. Such details are overlooked by those hyping nukes as “zero emission.” All reactors spew deadly isotopes along with climate-killing heat and some Carbon-14. They actually stand in the way of the combination of wind, solar, batteries, and improved energy efficiency that comprise our only route to saving the climate.

Ohio’s north coast region is great for wind. More than $4 billion in private capital is waiting to create more than 10,000 jobs there while slashing electric rates. Meanwhile nearby Indiana, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania have many more wind turbines than Ohio, operating profitably and employing substantial workforces.

An absurd anti-green setback requirement from a “well lobbied” legislature froze out Ohio’s wind industry with a single Ohio Code sentence. But fort that sentence, cheap wind energy would be flooding the state and the “need” for nuclear power would evaporate. Reactor jobs “lost” would be dwarfed by those gained from renewables.

Against all odds, a broad coalition of environmentalists, wind promoters, consumers, and industrialists has so far kept FirstEnergy at bay. Bailout opponents vastly outnumber nuclear fans at hearings.

Shutdowns like those of Pilgrim and Three Mile Island are victories for jobs, the economy, and the climate. But the clock is ticking, in the US and worldwide, on the next elderly reactor to collapse due to incompetence and greed, or to crumble in an earthquake, tsunami, or terror attack. Should green advocates ultimately win in Ohio and Pennsylvania and roll back the bailouts in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, the march of the shutdowns just might outrun the next meltdown.