The Tale of Nuclear Disasters Foretold

If you studied Greek mythology in grade school, you may remember the story of Cassandra. Apollo fell in love with her and granted her the gift of prophecy. But she spurned him, so he placed a curse on her ensuring that no one would believe her predictions. Later, when she foresaw the destruction of Troy, her fellow Trojans ignored her. They called her a lunatic -- and paid dearly for their disbelief.

Modern-day Cassandras have been sounding alarms about the risks of nuclear power for years, and those warnings, like Cassandra's, have fallen on deaf ears.

One of the most notable examples occurred in January 1979, when the Union of Concerned Scientists asked the government to shut down 16 nuclear reactors and re-examine the rest after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission repudiated the findings of a major nuclear safety study. UCS charged that the 1975 study, which erroneously concluded that the chance of a severe nuclear accident was as remote as one in a million years, was the agency's main justification for keeping the plants running. In mid-February, the NRC rejected UCS's request. The agency insisted the study was not a major factor in its reactor licensing decisions or regulatory enforcement. On March 28, one of the 16 plants UCS cited -- Unit 2 at Three Mile Island -- suffered a partial meltdown.

Fast forward to March 11 of this year, the day a 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated Japan and overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex. UCS had scheduled a lunch briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss two new reports on nuclear power. One warned against plans to lavish more federal subsidies on the industry at the expense of safer, more cost-effective low-carbon technologies. The other warned that the NRC, although capable of ensuring reactor safety, too often fails to prevent major lapses.

Only 12 congressional staff members showed up.

UCS's nuclear subsidies report found that despite more than 30 federal subsidies supporting every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle over the last half century, the industry is still not economically viable. Added together, these subsidies often have exceeded the average market price of the electricity the industry produced. "In other words," said Ellen Vancko, UCS's nuclear energy and climate change project manager, "if the government had purchased power on the open market and given it away free, it would have been less costly than subsidizing nuclear power plant construction and operation."

Pending and proposed subsidies for new nuclear reactors would shift even more costs and risks from the industry to taxpayers and ratepayers. The Obama administration, for example, is proposing to provide an additional $36 billion in federal loan guarantees to underwrite new reactor construction, boosting the total amount of nuclear loan guarantees from $18.5 billion to $58.5 billion, leaving taxpayers liable if plant owners default on these loans.

Why does the industry want these loan guarantees? Without them, Wall Street will not risk financing new reactors, now estimated to cost between $8 billion and $10 billion each. Given the nuclear industry's abysmal financial track record, default is not an academic issue. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the potential for default for the industry at 50 percent.

The second UCS report focused on safety. Written by UCS Nuclear Safety Project Director David Lochbaum, it analyzed 14 special inspections the NRC performed last year when safety equipment problems or security shortcomings increased the chances of a reactor core meltdown by a factor of 10 or more. The report also reviewed other examples where the NRC oversight process achieved particularly good outcomes -- demonstrating that the agency can be an effective regulator; and particularly bad outcomes -- indicating that the agency needs to do more to ensure public safety.

Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who worked at U.S. reactors for 17 years, found that many of these significant events -- or near-misses -- occurred because reactor owners and the NRC tolerated known safety problems. "For example," he told the small gathering, "both of the nuclear reactors at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland automatically shut down when rainwater leaked in through holes in the roof and dripped onto electrical equipment. Workers had noted numerous leaks across many, many months prior to this event, but management always deferred repairs. After all, the roof only leaked when it rained."

On March 11, UCS nuclear experts had an audience of a dozen. On March 12, when it became clear just how bad the situation in Japan was, our phones didn't stop ringing, and they haven't stopped ringing since. All of a sudden, everyone is interested in nuclear safety.

So what are the lessons from the last few weeks, besides the fact that it too often takes a catastrophe to wake people up from their indifference?

First and foremost, that it can happen here, whether triggered by human error, or by a hurricane, earthquake, tornado, ice storm or other natural disaster. To avoid that possibility, the NRC needs to do a lot more to protect the public. Among other things, the agency should require the owners of the 104 reactors currently operating across the country to transfer a significant percentage of their spent fuel from wet pools to dry casks, which are less vulnerable. It also must reassess plant emergency evacuation plans, which now only extend to a 10-mile radius. And it must ensure that plant owners have realistic plans to cool reactor fuel rods in the event their main and backup power fails.

The NRC has announced a two-phase response plan to Fukushima: a 90-day assessment followed by a more in-depth review. Given its past performance, the NRC likely will draft a solid action plan to address problems highlighted by the Japanese nuclear disaster, but then implement safety upgrades at a glacially slow pace. A comprehensive action plan does little to protect Americans until its goals are achieved. Congress must force the NRC to not merely chart a course to a safer place, but actually reach that destination as soon as possible.

Second, the Fukushima disaster likely will put the U.S. nuclear industry's "renaissance" on hold, if not derail it altogether, especially since it was faltering long before March 11. Spiraling construction cost estimates, declining energy demand, low natural gas prices, and the government's failure to place a price on carbon pollution already had put a damper on the industry's plans.

The good news is we do not need new nuclear reactors. The United States could meet projected electricity demand over the next 20 years and cut power-plant carbon emissions by 84 percent without them, according to a 2009 UCS report. How? By phasing out coal, significantly improving energy efficiency, and dramatically increasing our reliance on clean, renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy.

In the meantime, the federal government should heed UCS's recent warnings. The NRC needs to aggressively enforce its regulations, and the Obama administration should promote technologies that will swiftly achieve the biggest cuts in global warming emissions at the lowest cost and risk. Nuclear power today does not meet those criteria.