June 20 - President's Browns Ferry nuclear plant visit highlights failures of nuclear industry

President Bush’s visit to Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant will be another photo op for the administration to promote nuclear power. While the Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plant is the site of the first reactor to come online in the 21st century, it is a peculiar selection to inaugurate the so-called “nuclear renaissance.” Browns Ferry is the site of the second-most severe nuclear accident in the United States, after the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Furthermore, the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant has a dubious history and can hardly be held up as a model for the industry. Construction of the original two reactors was extended by five years and exceeded cost projections by more than $250 million, about $1 billion in today’s dollars. In 1975, a year after the second reactor became operational, an electrician using a candle to detect air leaks started a fire, which took several hours to control and disabled the emergency core cooling system. Despite the near meltdown, the reactor was briefly reopened, only to be shut down with the other two Browns Ferry units in 1985 due to mounting safety and regulatory problems. 

The renovation of the third reactor at Browns Ferry cost $1.8 billion, a substantial amount to invest in old technology. The investment to bring the 22-year-old structure online has already been tainted with problems. Since its restart on May 22, it has been shut down twice to repair safety equipment and a hydraulic leak. 

Instead of representing the future of nuclear power, it stands as the premier example of why we stopped ordering new reactors in the first place. The nuclear industry has given no proof that construction of new nuclear plants will proceed without massive construction delays and cost overruns. To the contrary, the reactor being built in Finland by the French-government owned company Areva is already 18 months behind schedule. As a result, Areva wrote off $922 million in 2006.

Nuclear power is not viable without massive federal subsidies. Instead of promoting energy generated by an industry that continues to add to the nation’s stockpile of nuclear waste and saddles its customers with financial and security risks, President Bush should be promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. Technologies such as solar, wind, biomass and geothermal energy – coupled with aggressive energy efficiency standards – can meet the nation’s energy demands without nuclear power’s pitfalls. 

President Bush’s visit will ignore the insidious details of expanding our nation’s nuclear reactors by asserting that nuclear energy is “clean and safe,” but the facts remain and are nowhere more evident than at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant: Nuclear power is a dangerous and uneconomical energy source.

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