Not long ago, nuclear energy was seen as a dying industry. There hasn't been a nuclear power plant built in 30 years, and the disaster at Three Mile Island all but sealed the industry's fate. But today there are serious moves underway to bring nuclear back, and they are set to begin in the South. Host Bruce Gellerman reports.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Coming up, a founder of Greenpeace sees the light – and it’s powered by nuclear energy.
But first: There are 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States. And they generate about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. There were plans for a lot more nuclear plants. Then in 1979 the meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island put the kibosh on the industry. But now, like a phoenix, nuclear power is rising out of the ashes. Concerns over the burning of fossil fuels and global warming and the rising price of energy are setting the stage for a nuclear power renascence.
Mary O’Driscoll, a senior reporter for Environment and Energy Daily says the industry has big plans.
O’DRISCOLL: Oh boy, they do. (laughs) They do. The goal is to make nuclear the premier source of power generation, but it’s a very difficult, very politically difficult, very expensive process to get that done.
GELLERMAN: There hasn’t been a nuclear power plant built in the United States in nearly 30 years. Despite past difficulties, utilities are taking steps to build no less than 16 new nuclear power plants over the next decade. Mary Olsen, with the Nuclear Information and Research Service, says three-quarters of the plants will be located in the south.
OLSEN: And, indeed, the southeast is the nuclear heartland of the United States because of the number not only of reactors, but fuel factories, nuclear bomb factories, and all the supporting facilities. And this is already a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities in the United States.
GELLERMAN: But recent public opinion polls suggest 56 percent of Americans now favor nuclear power. And many people who once said “not in our backyard” now say, “put it in the front.” So, when Duke Power just announced plans to build two new reactors in South Carolina, Jim Cooke, head of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, set out the welcome mat.
COOKE: It is huge news. We were just keeping our fingers crossed. We didn’t want to say, ‘we knew they were looking at several different sites.’
GELLERMAN: Duke chose Cherokee County, population 54,000. The textile mills and peach industries are long gone. Unemployment hovers near eight percent and Jim Cooke says just building the new reactors would put a thousand people to work.
COOKE: The number of jobs that they bring in during construction, and those types of folks coming in, will bring a lot of money in. And tax-wise it’ll be a windfall for our county. I don’t even think we realize the economic impact that it’s going to have here yet.
GELLERMAN: To sweeten the deal, Cherokee County is cutting Duke Power’s property taxes on the proposed 2,000-acre site in half. The company already runs a natural gas-powered plant nearby and seven nuclear reactors around the state.
COOKE: Duke power has been a great corporate citizen here. They’re a good company and they’re not just gonna come in here and go away.
GELLERMAN: Actually, once Duke did come to the county with plans to build a nuclear plant. And it did go away.
COOKE: We got our hopes up earlier, back in the – whoo, wow, I was in the service – probably the 80’s. They were gonna build here on this exact site. Matter of fact, there’s an old reactor that they had started and then, for different political and economic reasons, you know, boom, Duke Power pulled out of it. And they sold it to this fella in North Carolina, and he ran a film company and actually made a few films down there…if you recall the film “The Abyss.”
[SOUNDS OF A HELLICOPTER]
MAN: That there is a bottomless pit, baby. Two and a half miles straight down.
GELLERMAN: The filmmaker of “The Abyss” flooded the unfinished reactor containment vessel and used it for the underwater scenes. Ironically, the movie deals with recovering a sunken nuclear submarine.
MAN: Whatever happens, it’s up to us.
MAN 2: That guy scares me more than anything that’s down there.
GELLERMAN: The site is now a rusting shambles. The cost to build and abandon the reactor: $600 million. But Duke spokesman Tim Petite says times and attitudes have changed and the old Cherokee site is the perfect place to build a nuclear power plant.
PETITE: Well, right now we’re estimating that’ll be somewhere between four and six billion dollars, the initial investment in these.
GELLERMAN: Lot of money.
PETITE: It is a lot of money. These are, you know, very large capital investments just like any large generating station is. But again, as you look at the life of that plant, the fuel costs associated with nuclear is much less than the other generation, and so it pays benefits to the company, the shareholders and the customers over the long-term.
GELLERMAN: To jumpstart the nation’s stagnate nuclear industry, the federal government is providing $13 billion in incentives and subsidies. If there is an accident the utilities liability is largely covered. The licensing process has also been streamlined, and taxpayers will pay half the $47 million application fee. Anti-nuclear activist Mary Olsen says the money is just a down payment on the trillions of dollars nuclear power will eventually cost.
OLSEN: Nuclear power is not cost-effective or competitive. The only way to build new reactors is put tax dollars into it. What if we put trillions of dollars into wind, efficiency and solar? Couldn’t we do it faster? I bet we could.
GELLERMAN: One issue is slowing down the renaissance in nuclear power is radioactive waste. Right now there are 50,000 tons of spent fuel rods at power plants around the nation. The controversial federal repository that was supposed to store reactor waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
To speed things up, the Bush administration has proposed streamlining the licensing process and lifting the cap on the amount of radioactive waste that can be buried at Yucca. Still, energy reporter Mary O’Driscoll says waste remains the industry’s Achilles heel.
O’DRISCOLL: They are paying to store nuclear waste on spent fuel onsite which does not make them happy, doesn’t make their shareholders happy, doesn’t make their rate payers happy. A lot of members of Congress aren’t happy. And so it’s a very difficult situation to resolve, and the feeling is that until you resolve, finally, the Yucca Mountain situation and get it operating and make sure it’s operating, that the future of nuclear power in the United States is really going to be questionable.
PETITE: Well, certainly that’s something we’re taking a look at. We’ll follow that very closely.
GELLERMAN: Again, Tim Petite from Duke Power.
PETITE: We want to see a lot of progress made on that front. And before we decide to go forward with building additional nuclear plants we’ll certainly be evaluating the storage of the fuel before that decision is made.
GELLERMAN: Petite says that decision could be made in a year...maybe two.
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