Taxpayers Should Not Bear Risks of Nuclear Power
October 11 , 2007
The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 left many Americans with grave concerns about the risk of nuclear power – concerns that were only magnified seven years later when the Chernobyl disaster forced the evacuation and resettlement of nearly 400,000 people, with thousands poisoned by radiation.
By then, Three Mile Island was still only halfway finished with a clean-up that would last until 1993, at a cost that ultimately topped one billion dollars. The first few years after the Three Mile Island disaster likewise saw the plant’s owner, the General Public Utilities Corp., teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, struggling to finance the clean-up while battling lawsuits from its shareholders and utility customers. This should have marked the end of the nuclear industry in the US.
Unfortunately, bills passed in both the House and Senate would ease the way for nuclear energy companies not only to perpetuate the grave health and public safety risks associated with nuclear power, but also to expose American taxpayers to the financial risks that nearly buried General Public Utilities Corp.
At issue is the federal government’s involvement in loan guarantees for the construction of new nuclear power plants.
As the Nuclear Energy Institute recently reported in a brief to the US Department of Energy, “100 percent loan coverage is essential … [because] the capital markets are unwilling, now and for the foreseeable future, to provide the financing necessary” for new power plants. In other words, nuclear plants are so financially risky that the market refuses to support them, so the nuclear industry has turned to the federal government with a plan for shifting the massive financial risks of new nuclear reactors onto US taxpayers.
Even worse, the nuclear lobby has already partially succeeded. A one-sentence provision slipped into the Senate’s energy bill over the summer strips congressional appropriations committees of their fiscal responsibility to oversee loan guarantee programs – allowing the Department of Energy to give out unlimited guarantees without congressional authorization. The House version of the energy bill doesn’t go quite so far, but still limits congressional power to protect taxpayers from financial backing the most risky energy projects.
This capitulation to the nuclear lobby puts US taxpayers at risk many, many times over:
- Nuclear power presents a human safety risk, leaving behind radioactive material that will be toxic to humans for more than 100,000 years. This isn’t just a problem for communities near nuclear waste sites, as nuclear power plants around the country would be shipping waste through nearly every state in the nation to reach final storage destinations.
- Nuclear power presents a national security risk, with nuclear plants a tempting target for terrorists. As Robert Kennedy, Jr. has pointed out, there are at least eight relatively easy ways to cause a major meltdown at a nuclear plant – you don’t need to crash airplanes into the cooling towers. What’s more, human error and natural disasters can trigger the same emergencies, without the assistance of terrorists.
- Nuclear power exacerbates the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. With countries like North Korea and Iran working in the nuclear arena, the problem of separating energy-generating nuclear technology from weapons proliferation is not solved, and our pursuit of nuclear programs only encourages other “rogue” regimes to do the same.
As the House and Senate resolve their energy bills in committee, they need to recognize their duty to protect the interests of the American people, and avoid the human safety, national security, and nuclear proliferations risks – as well as the serious financial risks –that accompany loan guarantees for such a volatile industry.
Nuclear power companies do not deserve the giveaways that Congress is considering. If private banks and investors will not finance the expensive risk of restarting a robust nuclear energy industry in this country, then American taxpayers should not either.
The nuclear power industry must be forced to compete in the market just like other energy technologies – such as solar and wind energy – that carry with them none of the drawbacks of nuclear, and hold much more promise for a safe, secure, and reliable energy future in America.