In a recent article in the Nexus (“California’s Energy Options”, Feb. 5), Thomas Rhodes, a senior chemical engineering major, proposed that nuclear power would be California’s most viable option for the future of energy production. Rhodes claimed that nuclear power could be created “cleanly and economically,” and that it is a stable source of energy with only one mild repercussion. He asserts that this one undesirable effect is the “spent fuel” that nuclear power plants create. Rhodes’ argument is problematic as well as oversimplified; he creates a false impression of the role nuclear power should play in the future of California and U.S. energy production.
Nuclear power plants are not the environmentally safe gold mines that Rhodes has suggested. It is true that the quantity of radioactive waste (or “spent fuel” under his euphemism) is very small. The problems created from this radioactive waste are not equally small. There are a few reasons for this:
1. According to a concerned scientist at the Utility Reform Network (TURN), the process of obtaining uranium for nuclear power plants is an ugly one that resembles coal mining. An important difference is that mining uranium has a greater chance of polluting ground water. It is such a toxic process that “half of the people employed by the uranium mining industry work on cleaning up the mines after use.”
2. Nuclear waste must be carefully discarded after use. Only two places in the U.S. now accept such waste, so it is generally stored in the nuclear power plant itself. When power plants are no longer of economic value due to costly maintenance, high investment cost or other common problems, they must sit around for years until radiation levels are safe. Incidentally, such problems caused utility companies in California to incur debts in the order of $17 billion, and taxpayers picked up the tab. Nuclear waste causes many long-term disposal problems.
3. In theory, and according to Rhodes, “No power plant that purchases fuel to make electricity can make power cheaper.” In practice, this is not true. The problems arise when we consider the cost of building nuclear plants as well as maintaining them, and when we take into account (or rather out of account) the costs of obtaining and cleaning up after the uranium. The building of nuclear power plants has been very costly to investors. Over the years, the expected cost of building power plants was surpassed by actual costs, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). In 1985, after seeing that the consistent trend of nuclear power plants was costing significantly more and taking significantly longer to build than expected, Forbes magazine said that nuclear power was “the greatest managerial disaster in business history.”
Also worth noting is the fact that much of our needed uranium is imported; in 1998 alone we acquired a $362 million trade deficit because of such importation. Ideally, nuclear power could be somewhat clean as well as economical, but it has not been so yet. In California, consumers have already suffered from this fact by having fees tacked onto their utility bills to bail out bad investments in nuclear energy. What is important for the future of energy is that there exists a true competitive market where much of the produced energy is renewable. There is not a quick fix way of doing this and any route taken will be costly. It is vital that long-term solutions are created by incorporating a number of options into a composite solution. We will need to use solar power in tandem with wind and geothermal power. We will need to give incentives to larger energy consumers to purchase power made from renewable sources. We will not be able to switch to these methods overnight, but we can steadily build resources in renewable energy that will enable reliable, cost-efficient energy.
Tim Poulin is a junior music composition major.