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Thursday, May 31, 2001

Utah should say no to N-power

By Winston C. Weeks

      Predictably, the Utah Republican establishment has given its blessing to the Cheney-Bush energy plan, trumpeting potential benefits to Utah's economy. But in one key area -- reviving nuclear power -- this plan is a prescription for disaster for the state and the nation that Utah's leaders should resist vigorously.
      The president proposes a massive additional subsidy initiative to build new nuclear power plants to address the worst "energy crisis" since the 1970s. Touting nukes as clean and green, new and improved, stopping just short of "too cheap to meter", Bush promotes construction of enough new reactors to create enough nuclear waste to guarantee that Utah and Nevada will be dumped on for decades.
      The nuclear industry and the president know that their expansion plans are doomed without a dump site for spent fuel rods. The industry wants to build 50 new nuclear power plants in the next 20 years, which means a 50 percent increase in nuclear waste that will need to be stored and buried. So it's no surprise Bush and his "nuk -- u -- lur" buddies want the waste problem "resolved" soon. However, even if both the Yucca Mountain, Nev., burial grounds and the Private Fuel Storage "temporary" storage pad in Utah open for business, the existing waste coupled with newly generated waste will exceed their combined capacity.
      It's widely publicized that Utah's governor says nuclear power plant waste will be stored in Utah over his dead body, that our boys in Congress back him up on that and that 84 percent of Utahns agree. It hasn't been reported that Bush used the Xcel Energy headquarters as a backdrop for his St. Paul energy policy press conference. Xcel, formerly Northern States Power, is the driving force behind Private Fuel Storage (PFS), the limited liability corporation that wants to park its spent fuel rods on Skull Valley Goshute land until the government rams it down Nevada's throat. It's largely ignored that Leavitt is lukewarm in opposing Yucca Mountain and that our Republicans in Congress wholeheartedly endorse it.
      It should be understood that Utah will be affected negatively even if the high level nuke waste goes directly to Nevada without stopping here. The transportation of spent fuel rods poses unacceptable risks, and the creation of more nuclear power means more low level nuclear waste will be landfilled here. Beyond the waste problem, there is an extensive menu of reasons nuclear power is bad policy.
      The nuclear energy cycle is anything but clean and green. Four Corners uranium miners, millers and transporters suffering from cancer and fighting for compensation can attest to that. Contrary to the president's claims that nuclear power is free of greenhouse gas emissions, mining and fabricating nuclear fuel is highly energy intensive, using four to five times more polluting fuels per kilowatt produced than wind power and other renewable. Radioactive emissions are routine; they do not require an accident.
      Nuclear power is not economically competitive. Studies have estimated that each kilowatt of nuclear power costs $3,000 to $4,000 to produce. New natural gas-fired plants cost $400 to $600 per kilowatt, wind turbines $1,000 per kilowatt. Public Citizen reported in 1998 that 42 of the 108 then operating nuclear power reactors are more expensive to operate and maintain than the cost of replacement power in their own regions. No utility company has ordered a new reactor for more than two decades because they can't compete in a deregulated energy environment, and 89 percent of 400 utility executives surveyed in 1996 said they would not consider doing so. Most of these execs recall the WHOOPS financial meltdown in Washington state and are well aware of the $28 billion bailout (disguised as deregulation) of California nuclear utilities' "stranded costs."
      The Cheney-Bush energy package calls for renewal of the Price-Anderson Act, which limits the liability of the nuclear industry in the event of an accident. Taxpayers would pick up the tab above $7 billion (a serious accident could result in more than $300 billion in damages). Without that public subsidy shielding their liability, not even the most pro-nuclear utility would dream of building or operating a new reactor. Limited liability should sound familiar to our PFS-watchers in Congress.
      Lastly, in spite of industry claims to the contrary, the risks of a catastrophic reactor accident are still quite real. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission testified in 1986 that there was a 45 percent chance of a meltdown at a U.S. reactor by 2006. In 1994, former NRC Chairman Ivan Selin stated that economic pressures give utilities "incentive to cut corners" with safety, increasing the potential for accidents.
      Utah's leadership may find reasons to back some portions of the administration's energy plan, but if they support the nuclear initiatives they may some day have to look in the mirror and ask "over whose dead bodies?"

Winston C. Weeks represents the Citizens Education Project, a Utah-based nonprofit group concerned with environmental and social justice issues. The author was research director for Downwinders for many years.

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