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Nuclear Debacle – Not Clean, Not Safe

The recent earthquake in Japan and subsequent loss of 10% of Japan's electric power due to failures and explosions in at least two nuclear power plants, demonstrates the frailness of relying on any "one" energy source, particularly one that holds the extremely high risk of contaminating the air and water, and could be a target for terrorist acts.

American citizens have been exposed to failures of policymakers and regulators in the past.  And these failures have placed enormous financial burdens on U.S. taxpayers and have had severe consequences for our economy and national security. The top three such failures include the savings and loan fiasco, which was caused by federal deregulation policy and banking deregulation; the recent economic meltdown caused by bad or ineffective policy on derivatives and regulation; and a catastrophic failure in homeland security on September 11th 2001 due to breaches at airports that was the result of a policy of restraint despite intelligence consensus was that the risk was "high."

Policymakers from both parties are following the same path for nuclear power -- placing arbitrarily low liability caps on nuclear power plant owners and operators (known as the Price Anderson Act) and subsidizing nuclear power RD&D, financing and loan guarantees with billions of dollars that will be paid for by taxpayer outlays.

As the U.S. public knows first hand, the arbitrary low penalty caps for oil spills seemed beyond comprehension after the mammoth BP Gulf oil spill. In this case, BP didn’t fight that battle and established a $20 billion fund. The financial market places penalties on technologies that have high technical and financial risks and this benefits taxpayers and ratepayers and is actually a safeguard for public security.

Technologies that present immense health, safety and security risks should not be cushioned, but rather the exposure and risks need to be transparent with those taking the risks, bearing the subsequent costs. The way it stands now everybody -- including you, the U.S. taxpayer -- that stands to bear the brunt of these damage costs if a nuclear failure happened on U.S. shores.

The public needs to remember and note the recent failures of nuclear power regulatory oversight:  1) a nuclear whistleblower at a PA plant complained repeatedly about sleeping nuclear control room employees, only to be fired even after he proved it by releasing pictures, 2) an unanticipated containment vessel (large) hole in an Ohio reactor, and 3) conflicts of interest by NIOSH on nuclear worker compensation -- all occurring within just the last few years.

In March 2007, John Jasinski sends the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a letter alleging guards are sleeping throughout the nuclear plant in York County, Pa. The NRC refers the concern to plant owner Exelon and security provider Wackenhut, who denies it and blames a nuclear employee of being disgruntled. The NRC accepts the statement. On Sept. 10th WCBS in New York informs the NRC that it has a videotape of guards asleep or nodding off in a “ready room” near the nuclear reactor. A newspaper documented one of the nuclear staff who worked more than 150 hours during a 14-day period, and averaged more than 54 hours a week for more than 10 months.  Finally on Sept. 21st, an NRC inspection confirms that only the 10 guards caught on tape were sleeping — one of the four shifts is implicated. On Nov. 1st Exelon terminates its contract with Wackenhut and takes over the plant’s security. Whistle-blower Kerry Beal, on leave during the investigation, is not among the Wackenhut guards rehired by Exelon. (Excerpt here.)

This is only one of numerous problems, in addition to reports that nuclear plants are not passing their mock security trials, and add to that even more ridiculous containment dome tests, when we all know that nuclear power plants can be compromised when their cooling towers, pumps and substations are impacted.

There is no question that Washington, DC will listen as the truth about the real risks come out about nuclear power in such horrid detail. Renewable energy again will show itself to be the safest bet, already attracting over $250 billion in global private sector investment in 2010, already installing more MWs per year in “clean and safe energy” than new nuclear power plants. And already providing electric power at lower costs than the multibillion-dollar proposed nuclear power plants on the drawing boards in the southeastern U.S.  Markets, and then policy, move to the safest, most reliable, and then lowest cost technologies. That bounty will fall on high value energy efficiency and the entire portfolio of renewable energy.

Swarms of nuclear lobbyists who have put hundreds of millions of dollars into campaign coffers are now in Washington, DC. They are claiming our nuclear power plants are different. Balderdash! The Federal Energy Management Administration (FEMA) website states that 39 states are susceptible to earthquakes, a good portion of the country could be exposed to category five hurricanes and tornadoes, and that doesn’t include the forest fires, natural gas pipeline explosions and other surprises that unexpectedly confront us every year.

In the mid-1980’s Amory and Hunter Lovins published “Brittle Power” (download the PDF here), which is mandatory reading for my sustainable energy course at George Washington University. In their piece, the Lovins’ make clear that we “undervalue risk.” In the preface, former CIA Director James Woolsey agrees in spades.

Twenty five years later, the nuclear industry says “trust us” and “it can’t happen here “ and then remind us “but keep those liability caps.” But hear me out -- legislated liability caps mean nuclear is not safe. It isn’t clean, and it isn’t cheap. The technology is a very expensive way to boil water, and my next column will deal with the immense national security concerns – the other “risk” we just overlook.

What we should have learned from the Challenger Disaster and the immense loss of life in three separate incidents on September 11th - is that the unthinkable does happen , and pretending that somehow nuclear power is exempt from that rule, is irresponsible and unqualified fantasy.

Scott Sklar is President of The Stella Group, Ltd., a strategic marketing and policy firm for clean distributed energy users and companies and is an Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University teaching a multi-disciplinary sustainable energy course.

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