Gone Fission

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

There’s nothing like an undeniable catastrophe to focus attention on the proper response to risk—especially in its most elusive form, the rare and devastating occurrence. No one can overlook the one-two punch that struck Japan last winter: a monstrous earthquake and a huge tsunami, followed by harrowing reports of meltdown at the seaside Fukushima Daiichi power plant. In the United States, the visceral response was to boost the always strong, if sometimes latent, categorical opposition to nuclear power—and perpetuate the long-term folly that has undercut both sensible energy policy and public safety.

So powerful has the no-nuclear movement been that no new nuclear plant has been commissioned since the incident at Three Mile Island in 1978, which means that our aging nuclear plants remain active as their useful lives are extended with various repairs and upgrades. They are far inferior to any new plant that could be put into service today. At the same time, the United States dithers on designating and building a site to deal with the growing risk of spent nuclear fuel, which is generated in ever-larger quantities but remains stored in inferior facilities near the plants that produce it.

This combination magnified the already-serious problems in Japan. First came the direct hit to the country’s nuclear plant, and then, when water to cool down the fuel rods drained or boiled away, the fuel overheated. The result was a substantial release of radioactive materials into the air and sea. Moreover, many people, especially those involved in cleanup, were exposed to the risk of radiation. Our own policies have, in the name of abundant caution, created exactly the same risk in the United States.

As far back as 1982, the United States enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which empowered the federal government to locate, develop, and operate an underground nuclear waste disposal site. After thirty years, the job should have been long done. But the strength of local politics is such that it took twenty years for Congress to approve, in 2002, the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. Seven years later, under the constant prodding of then–Senate majority leader Harry Reid, the Obama administration, in one of its more boneheaded decisions, decreed that this site was no longer an option.

The fundamental blunder of that decision lay in its indefensible approach to risk management. The correct approach is to compare the risks of the proposal with the risks inherent in the current situation. By that standard, Yucca Mountain is a no-brainer. Leaving spent fuel onsite in rickety containment facilities is just asking for trouble. Putting it in Yucca Mountain, which has gone through extensive safety reviews, reduces that risk by many orders of magnitude.

Gone Fission
Image credit: Taylor Jones

The 2009 decision to take Yucca Mountain off the table was justified, if at all, by an entirely bogus analysis. It’s true that no site is ever 100 percent safe. That conclusion doesn’t depend on any detailed analysis of a given site, but rather on the blunt observation that siting decisions never achieve the status of mathematical truth. By that standard, no new facility should or would ever be built. Identify a site, and sure as night follows day, the site falls short of perfection in at least one dimension so that it, too, has to be rejected. In the meantime, the danger in the local storage facilities only grows. The current policy of inaction meets the definition of reckless: a conscious and knowing effort to raise the level of risk associated with certain essential activities.

The situation doesn’t look any better when we turn to the second ingredient of the Japanese tragedy, the aging facilities. Forty years is too long to keep any nuclear plant in operation. But the only way to decommission these old plants is to put up some new power source. On that issue, of course, nuclear power is not the only option on the table. In the United States, it may well be the best—if we can set aside the entrenched thinking that stands in its way.

Leaving spent nuclear fuel onsite in rickety containment facilities is just asking for trouble.

We can write off both solar and wind energy as meaningful sources of energy. These intermittent sources of electricity are difficult to collect and expensive to transmit. Even large government subsidies have not kept these useless operations in working order. Throwing good money after bad energy projects won’t bend the laws of physics—it will only illustrate, once again, the futility of government engagement in industrial planning. Remove the solar and wind subsidies, and markets are likely to find those few niches where such power sources make sense.

The misguided affection for solar energy could easily make matters worse. In Germany, regulations require that nuclear plants be powered down so that wind energy can be better deployed. Unfortunately, it is far more risky to dial down—and then up—a nuclear reactor than it is to turn off a windmill. Goofy government subsidies, therefore, lead to an increased business risk. Nuclear power should be the anchor tenant, with wind and solar power as marginal sources.

We can, of course, switch to coal, oil, and natural gas; all the facilities for these energy sources can now be built far more safely than two generations ago. But the same is true of nuclear power, so long as we are prepared to take advantage of the best technology developed overseas in places like France, which for years has had a far more sensible nuclear power policy than the United States.

Yet taking that view will require a wholesale revision of current thinking about how to develop nuclear power plants. Right now, anti-nuclear groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists can point with some truth to the proposition that, as Bob Herbert recently noted in the New York Times, the “total cost to ratepayers, taxpayers, and shareholders stemming from cost overruns, canceled plants, and stranded costs exceeded $300 billion in today’s dollars.”

Remove the solar and wind subsidies, and markets are likely to find those few niches where such power sources make sense.

Why should anyone be surprised at this appalling figure? The high cost in each of these areas is not a function of the construction costs. It’s a direct consequence of the grotesque permitting and regulatory structure put in place to supervise—make that guard against—the construction of new nuclear facilities in the United States. Quite simply, the people who cry out in opposition to nuclear power have done everything possible to thwart any sensible investment in it.

So how can we make things better? First, replace aging power plants. The worst nuclear facility that could be built using today’s technology is likely to be far safer than the safest forty-year-old plant in service.

Second, use the best, most innovative technology. There is just no reason to balk at hiring people overseas who have designed and built the best new plants now in service. On this score, as on so many others, the Obama administration has to put aside its juvenile “America first” position on international trade to allow foreign participation in these decisions.

Third, streamline the regulatory process. Delay should no longer be the inevitable outcome when determined anti-nuclear activists wear out overburdened bureaucrats. What I call “permititis”—the excessive delays caused by repetitive, mindless reviews—has to be replaced by far more expedited procedures. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should be encouraged to develop a standard waste-disposal design, which could then be modified on a limited basis to take into account the safety risks of particular sites. Those sites should be selected through a much more abbreviated process, which would forestall the next Yucca Mountain fiasco.

It’s absolutely critical to learn the right lessons from the calamity at Fukushima Daiichi. For one, there is no site anywhere in the United States remotely as risky as the rocky coast of Japan. Put a new, well-constructed plant smack dab along the San Andreas Fault and it would still never be exposed to a quake 5 percent as powerful as the Japan quake and tsunami.

The Japanese tragedy illuminates a pressing need for sound policies in the United States. If we start now, we should be able to start reducing nuclear risks in five to seven years. But if we panic about nuclear risks and hold fast to failed policies, it could well be twenty or thirty more years before the situation starts to improve. And remember the potential cost of those outsize delays. If and when they lead to a nuclear meltdown, we can thank the anti-nuclear activists whose retrograde analysis of risk made catastrophe that much more possible. The road to nuclear hell can be paved with good intentions.