Nuclear energy seems custom-made as a solution for providing electricity without adding to climate change. But its downsides are big, and they are not only Americans’ fear of meltdowns and mushroom clouds.
Among the four words one least wants to hear are “Hanford nuclear reservation emergency.”
But that happened this past week when a tunnel containing radioactive waste collapsed, prompting the sheltering and evacuation of 4,800 workers. No radiation appears to have been released, but the U.S. Department of Energy opened an emergency-operations center to monitor the risk as workers began reburying the waste.
For our state’s many newcomers: Hanford was part of the massive constellation of sites established across the country by the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb during World War II. Only the United States had the scientific talent, industrial might — and the abundant space — to create nuclear weapons so quickly.
Hanford, a 580-square-mile reservation in South Central Washington, extracted plutonium for bombs and warheads, lasting through most of the Cold War. At one time, the site had nine nuclear reactors.
Most of Hanford was shut down in the waning years of that standoff with the Soviet Union. Left was an enormous cleanup, with 8,000 workers on a $100 billion project expected to last through 2060.
But the nuclear age had beneficial aspects, too, or so many hoped. At its most fanciful extreme, during the “Atoms for Peace” 1950s, enthusiasts foresaw atomic bombs used to dig canals or unlock natural gas.
One dream was realized: nuclear energy to produce electricity.
Today, 30 countries draw power from a total of nearly 450 reactors, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group. France relies on nuclear for 72 percent of its energy.
The federal Energy Information Agency lists 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants in 30 states (including the Columbia Generating Station, at Hanford). As of last year, a little less than 20 percent of U.S. electricity came from nuclear plants.
The great benefit of nuclear power is that it produces no fossil-fuel emissions. To its advocates, the world can’t seriously address human-caused climate change without embracing the atom. The more electricity generated by nukes, the more carbon stays in the ground.
But don’t look for a major surge in U.S. nuclear power anytime soon.
Part of the problem was revealed in last week’s Hanford incident. Inside the collapsed tunnel was radioactive waste buried inside rail cars, no doubt some of it from Hanford’s reactors.
The same issue applies to modern commercial reactors. They haven’t released carbon into the atmosphere, but they have left 75,000 metric tons of spent fuel in the United States alone. And that waste can be deadly for 250,000 years.
An effort to bury it deep in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain stalled amid local resistance and safety questions. Thus, most nuclear-generating stations store their spent fuel rods on site. Reprocessing the fuel has proved impractical and expensive.
Nuclear power suffered another setback with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that severely damaged the Fukushima plant in Japan. Some radioactivity was released into the air and ocean, and the plant’s operator was faulted for inadequate safety measures.
The event could have been much worse, and it happened in an advanced nation, not the backward Soviet Union, where a shoddy reactor design caused the catastrophic 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Before Fukushima, some major environmental organizations had been considering support for nuclear power because of climate change. Afterward, that embrace was largely dashed.
Many older Americans also remember Three Mile Island, a partial meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979. That incident, along with the near simultaneous release of the movie, “The China Syndrome,” about a fictional cataclysm at a nuclear station, created enormous popular resistance to nuclear energy.
More people have died from mining coal and extracting and refining oil than from nuclear power. But such is the power of nuclear in the American mind that it holds a special claim on fear. That’s not the case in many other nations moving ahead with nuclear generating stations, including China.
But the big problems with nukes have little to do with popular anxiety or federal regulation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an industry-friendly regulator, to say the least.
Beyond the waste-disposal challenge, safe nuclear-generating stations are extremely complex, prone to repeated delays and in most cases prohibitively expensive.
To be fair, some of the hurdles are a result of waiting for permits and political opposition, but hardly all. Most challenges come from technology that must perform flawlessly, fluctuating energy prices, and in some cases mismanagement by builders and utilities.
These realities have made it almost impossible to raise capital for nuclear plants on Wall Street.
Once-mighty Westinghouse was forced into bankruptcy reorganization because its hopes for a nuclear comeback didn’t materialize, and its problems may drag down parent company Toshiba as well.
The 2013 start of construction for a station in South Carolina, the first completely new installation to begin in three decades, required billions in loan guarantees by the Obama administration.
The second Watts Barr reactor in eastern Tennessee required the heft of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation. Yet Watts Barr 2 was shut down in March, only five months after going online for commercial operation, because of a mechanical problem. It could be offline for months.
As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times reported, the NRC also criticized the TVA for its “chilled work environment” at Watts Barr. That means employees fear raising concerns about safety and compliance with regulation.
Meanwhile, renewables such as wind and solar are becoming more effective and cheaper. Natural gas, which an increasing number of conventional generating stations use, is friendlier to the environment than coal.
Lacking a breakthrough out of science fiction, it’s difficult to imagine nuclear making new inroads in America’s energy mix. Keeping what we have safe will be enough.