Our daughter, Susan, is dating a self-described "conservative." I’ve been labeled — by others, not me — as "a liberal." We all get along just fine; however, the boyfriend is pro-nuclear. I’m not. In fact, I am on the board of Nuclear Watch South, part of a nationwide watchdog service (look us up at www.nonukesyouall.org).
The other day, Susan asked me what to say to her friend, or any other conservative, when they insist that nuclear power is the solution to the nation’s growing energy demands. Here’s my answer.
First of all, remember that nuclear power is more than 50 years old. The first U.S. commercial reactor went on line in 1957. Nuclear power is a "mature technology." In other words, it should be self-supporting. It is not.
Nuclear power cannot exist without government subsidies and government oversight. Basically, this is socialism, something most don’t conservatives want.
New nuclear power plants are not attracting private money. Wall Street won’t touch it. However, nuclear power is big business. There is big money to be made if the government subsidizes new nuclear plants, but that money will come from the taxpayers and go to big corporations, their stockholders and their CEOs.
Then there is the problem of regulation. Today, nuclear power is relatively safe in the sense that there is little chance of another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. But maintaining this necessary level of safety is very expensive and requires a huge bureaucracy. When government oversight is weakened even a little bit, negligence creeps in and shortcuts are taken.
Capitalism is based on free-market competition, and competition means risk-taking, something no one wants at a nuclear power plant.
Privately owned and run nuclear power plants are always looking for ways to keep their reactors online. When a problem was discovered with the reactor-head nozzles in France in 1991, most European countries replaced the vessel heads at all affected reactors. But the U.S. nuclear industry did not even examine its reactor nozzles in a timely fashion because unscheduled shutdowns are so expensive.
Davis-Besse, a reactor known to be susceptible to this problem, postponed checking of nozzles until a scheduled refueling outage. Only then did it discover a huge hole five inches across and six inches deep. Corrosion had eaten all the way through the containment wall, and less than 3/16 inch of liner was all that prevented a devastating explosion and possible meltdown.
It was a very close thing indeed. Contrary to the conservative call for less government intervention, the nuclear industry needs more oversight and tighter regulations. In fact, since every nuclear reactor produces plutonium as a byproduct, and plutonium is used in nuclear weapons, nuclear production of any kind invites international intrusion.
Conservatives are traditionalists; they resist change. After 50 years, nuclear power generation is old, familiar technology. People have become blasé about radiation, nuclear waste and possible terrorism, but these problems still exist.
Fortunately, nuclear power is becoming obsolete. It is too expensive, too dangerous and too big to serve a nation that wants to keep power in the hands of its citizens, not a bureaucracy.
Remember, a nuclear reactor doesn’t actually produce electricity. It splits atoms and, in the process, generates heat. The heat turns water into steam. The steam drives the generators, and the generators produce the electricity that customers use to boil water for their morning coffee.
There are simpler, safer ways to do this, and they are coming online every day. In Zwentendorf, Austria, a canceled nuclear facility was converted to a solar electrical plant at a cost far below what had been spent on the as-yet unfinished nuclear reactor. If the Austrians can do it, so can we.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.