What’s Wrong with Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy gets discussed as a new form of alternative energy, but a close examination of the last plant built in the United States reveals some fundamental problems with it.
As the United States aims to mitigate the effects of climate change, renewed interest in nuclear power is once again entering the public debate. The House of Representatives recently passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which, if passed, would move the United States to low- or zero-emitting technologies: nuclear, coal plants, and renewables such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and hydropower. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency notes that uncertainties still exist for nuclear power. With Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu’s support for nuclear energy and money categorized for continued nuclear energy research, the United States may very well be headed to a nuclear renaissance, but that might not be a good thing.
Nuclear power plants notoriously face huge cost overruns, long delays, and still have no permanent storage solution for waste. Any debate of new nuclear reactors in the United States should include an examination of Browns Ferry, the most recent plant to come online in the 21st century—one that was shut down for over two decades.
Construction began on three nuclear reactors in Athens, Alabama in 1967. Initially, the operation at Browns Ferry was slated to begin in 1970. The initial price tag was $247 million for construction and $66 million for the first load of fuel (about $2 billion today). But those estimates turned out to be very, very wrong. By the time the plant became fully operational in 1974, it was four years late and $1 billion over budget. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Browns Ferry Unit 1 was the last nuclear reactor to come online in the United States, and there have not been any new plants approved for construction in recent decades.
In 1975, about a year after it became operational, the Browns Ferry Unit 1 Reactor was the site of a fire that caused extensive electrical damage. An electrician was looking for air leaks in an area containing electrical cables, but the technician was using a candle, and it ignited insulation around the cables. “The fire raged for over seven hours,” according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and nearly disabled the safety equipment of the core cooling system of one of the two affected units. The fire damage caused the plant to shut down for 18 months to make necessary repairs.
According to the NRC’s history of the plant, in addition to causing skepticism about management at Browns Ferry, the “accident was a blow to the public image of nuclear power and the recently-established NRC. It focused new attention on preventing fires from threatening plant safety and on the possibility of ‘common-mode failures,’ in which a single cause could initiate a chain of events that incapacitated even redundant safety features.” The fire and subsequent problems with the plant has been noted as the second worst nuclear accident in the United States—rivaling only the Three Mile Island plant meltdown.
The Browns Ferry Unit 1 Reactor as well as the two others at the site, operated until 1985 when they were shut down due to safety concerns. The government restarted units 2 and 3 in the 1990s, but Unit 1 did not restart operations until 2007. Unit 1 sat idle for 32 years, including 18 months following the disastrous electrical fire of 1975. When it was restarted in 2007, the Unit 1 Reactor required a 5 year, $1.8 billion refurbishment and upgrade.
The Browns Ferry nuclear plant is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a utility company that prides itself on being the nation’s largest provider of public power. TVA got approval to begin reprocessing nuclear fuel at the Unit 1 Reactor, but a document discovered by the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) indicates that the reactor is still not in compliance with fire protection regulations. Instead of applying for an exemption, NIRS states that the NRC “allowed the reactor to restart under ‘enforcement discretion’ like the two other Browns Ferry reactors it shares a building with. This means that the NRC simply decided not to enforce its own regulations in the Browns Ferry case.” The NRC extended Unit 1’s operating license extended until 2033.
Before the project began, project managers estimated that Browns Ferry Unit 1 plant would supply power for nearly 35 years, but the plant has only produced power for approximately 11 and a half years and cost about $3 billion. This puts the price per kilowatt (which is roughly the amount of generating capacity needed to run one window air-conditioner) for generating electricity at about $1,500. In comparison, a natural gas turbine costs around $400 per kilowatt and wind generation is estimated at $1,500-$2,000 per kilowatt for turbines at major wind farms.
When former President Bush visited Browns Ferry during its reopening in 2007, he called for cuts to government regulatory barriers for the development of new nuclear plants. The plant still has problems. Just this February, workers temporarily shut down two of the three reactors at Browns Ferry because of mechanical issues. A spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission claimed that the two reactors shutting down at the same time was “totally coincidental.”
A brief look at the most recent European plant to begin construction will provide some food for thought given its hefty cost overrun and significant construction delay. The proposed plant would be the world’s most powerful, but the decision was still controversial. Finland’s parliament approved the reactor by a 107-92 vote in 2002. This vote in the Finnish parliament was significant—it was the first such decision to build a new nuclear power plant in Western Europe in more than a decade.
Under a partnership between Areva, the French state-owned company, and its German partner Siemens, Finland is attempting to build a new European pressurized reactor (EPR) at Olkiluoto. If successful, the plant will be a model for many other European countries, and the U.S., hoping to start a new era of nuclear power plants.
‘If’ because an examination of current construction reveals Finland is encountering similar cost overruns and significant delays the developers of Browns Ferry dealt with in the United States. Even at the outset, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority found a large concrete slab to be too porous and prone to corrosion for operation. Finland’s reactor had an initial price tag of nearly $4.2 billion, but that figure has increased nearly 50 percent; now estimates are up to nearly $8 billion. Areva and the Finnish government are now in arbitration over disputes on who will pay for the cost overruns. Initially, it was slated to be in operation by 2009, though now the best estimate for a start date is 2012.
The government usually has to financially back nuclear projects and ultimately be responsible for cost overruns because of the high level of regulation required. Given the financial challenges of the recession, it doesn’t make sense for the United States—or really any country—to invest in such a large financial venture that has such a poor track record. The government is also usually responsible for the significant safety risks. The Browns Ferry fire illustrates that apparent standard procedures may turn into near catastrophes.
Even under strict management and regulation, nuclear power remains an incredibly volatile energy source. Processing of the uranium is highly dangerous, not to mention that there are often concerns with the storage of spent nuclear waste. When the Bush administration was considering Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste dump site, both the Tennessee River and Wilson Dam would have been part of the route as waste moved from Browns Ferry to Nevada. Waste would have been carried by barge, rail, and road, all of which presented risks and safety concerns.
As the urgency to address climate change comes to the center of public debate, the United States and many other countries might be tempted to consider nuclear energy, to find new technologies or increase the use of existing resources. While there continue to be claims that new plants will be standardized and not face unexpected challenges of cost overruns and delays, the Finnish example does not seem to allay such fears.
Setting aside funds for nuclear research as part of the federal stimulus bill is but one indication that the government hopes to further the development of nuclear energy. If President Obama’s support for nuclear energy—as long as it is based on sound science—is any indication, taxpayers may be looking at spending billions of dollars to build power plants that will take decades to complete and they will be almost sure to cost much more than originally estimated. We would do well to learn from our past mistakes.
Adam Welti is a graduate student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University studying law and diplomacy.