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Face-Off: The Nuclear Non-Starter

Persistent economic and political issues continue to prevent the expansion of nuclear power.
Fortnightly Magazine - June 15 2003

delay increases capital costs for existing facilities and creates disincentives to go forward with construction of new nuclear plants."

Preventing Disaster

To a certain degree, the waste-disposal issue represents a red herring that anti-nuclear groups have used as a rallying cry against the industry. The true safety issues involving transportation and storage of spent fuels are relatively minor, compared with more credible risks to public health: terrorism and weapons proliferation.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the nuclear industry undertook an exhaustive study of terrorism risks affecting nuclear plants. The details are classified, but EPRI concluded that the risks of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant are "on the same realm of other low-probability sequences in the design basis today, and consequences are small," Vine says.

Independent researchers, however, are less sanguine about the issue.

In a February 2003 study, analysts from Princeton University, MIT, and three security-policy think tanks found a significant risk of "catastrophic radiation release" in the water-cooled tanks that store older spent-fuel rods. An attack that would drain the tanks could result in effects that exceed Chernobyl in terms of the magnitude of contamination, according to the study. Building new storage facilities to house spent fuel would cost the industry an estimated $3.5 billion to $7 billion.

"Is it worth spending a few billion dollars?" asks Frank von Hippel, a professor of public and international affairs in Princeton's program on science and global security, and one of the study's authors. "We can't calculate what the probability is, and it becomes a political question."

What is troubling about this issue is that the industry's regulators and research institutions don't seem interested in discussing it, according to von Hippel. "The industry seems to treat any problem as a PR problem, not a real problem," he says. "It would be to their benefit to say, 'You've raised an interesting question and we'll look into what can be done about it.' But instead they just say, 'There's no problem.'"

MIT's Macfarlane, who was also an author on the Princeton/MIT study, points out that in the 1970s the German nuclear industry conducted terrorism-risk analyses of its spent-fuel storage systems, and its response was to build interim dry-cask storage and to reinforce some containment structures.

"A lot of reactors will have to purchase dry-cask storage before Yucca Mountain begins taking waste," Macfarlane says. "But if the industry supports that, it would be admitting there is a security problem, so they don't want to support it."

While such security threats raise concerns, perhaps the more pressing nuclear-related problem involves proliferation of nuclear weapons. One needs to look no further than the daily newspaper to understand the nature of the threat, but tying that threat to the U.S. nuclear power industry requires connecting a few dots. In short, to the degree the industry expands in this country, other countries would likely follow suit, and that creates more proliferation risks.

"People who promote nuclear power as an answer to the greenhouse problem have the proliferation question before them," von Hippel says. "The public debate does not