Germany Gets It Right

On June 7th, the same day that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was in D.C. meeting with President Obama on various matters, the Energy and Natural Resources Senate Committee was holding a hearing regarding three bills, two of which propose new steps in the United States’ nuclear energy future. "Germany Nuclear Power"

In a striking parallel to the failed Nuclear Power 2010 Program, initiated in February of 2002 under the Bush Administration, the Nuclear Power 2021 Act, proposed by Senators Udall, Bingaman, and Murkowski, aims to revitalize a technology that has once again been proven to be outrageously dangerous, this time in Japan.  Unlike our German counterparts’ rational decision to completely abandon nuclear energy by 2022 in response to the still developing catastrophe in Japan, the Senate has proposed the Nuclear Power 2021 Act (S.512) and the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act of 2011 (S.1067), which would give new energy and funding to the United States’ so-called “nuclear renaissance.”

Smaller Doesn’t Mean Safer

These bills fail to address the age-old economic and safety concerns regarding nuclear power; they simply propose a new form of the same problem, namely Small Modular Reactor (SMR).  SMR’s, according to S.1067, are reactors with rated capacity less than 300 electrical megawatts which can be constructed and operated in combination with similar reactors at a single site.  Proponents of SMR’s argue, although many of the designs are still being worked on and none have yet been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), that SMR’s could potentially be safer than traditional reactors because they will require less cooling due to their reduced power level, they will be able to be sited underground, and they will likely be equipped with many passive cooling and safety features.  In the Senate hearing on June 7th, 2011 regarding these matters, it was widely discussed that the United States could be a world leader in SMR technology and manufacturing and even export SMR’s in the future.

Another Nuclear Industry Boondoggle

There are many troubling issues with these bills and the corresponding Senate hearing.  First, in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in history, these bills aim to dedicate money and resources to an industry that we should be moving away from.  More specifically, S.1067 appropriates $50 million for each of fiscal years 2012 through 2016 for research regarding SMR’s as well as for other measures to reduce the cost of nuclear energy.  Why spend money to make nuclear energy, a proven failure and a public health ticking time bomb, cheaper when we could spend money to move away from nuclear energy and towards solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and other truly renewable and sustainable energies?  Furthermore, Senate Bill S.512 sets up a cost-sharing system that would allow the Federal Government to pay for up to 50 percent of the cost for the development of each SMR design, as well as 25 percent of the licensing costs.  The nuclear industry has traditionally relied on government guaranteed loans and subsidies and this is no different.  In his testimony on June 7th, Dr. John Kelly, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Reactor Technologies, U.S. Dept. of Energy, sited the regulatory risk of new design for industry that made government cost-sharing “appropriate.”  In other words, the nuclear industry is not willing to put their neck on the line for this technology alone, so it is “appropriate” for the tax payer to take some of that burden.

Different Size, Same Problems

Dr. Edwin Lyman, a Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), testified before the Senate on June 7th, 2011 that the SMR industry is pressuring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to weaken certain regulatory requirements to reduce operating and maintenance costs.  The industry has pushed for weakening regulations regarding emergency planning, control room staffing, and security staffing because SMR’s contain less radioactive material than larger reactors.  The UCS argues that even a small SMR, producing as low as 50-megawatts, poses a serious public health risk in the case of a natural disaster or attack and, therefore, does not necessarily require less staffing and planning for such an event.  The UCS further notes that SMR’s will not necessarily be safer than larger reactors per unit of energy produced.  In other words, as the UCS states, six 200-megawatt reactors will be comparably as dangerous as one 1200-megawatt.  Although a disaster, accident or attack at a 200-megawatt may have a smaller public health impact than at a larger reactor, by multiplying these reactors and spreading them across the country we are creating a greater probability for incidents to occur.  Dr. Lyman further testified that potential SMR designs allow for the co-location of up to 12 reactors, which greatly complicates safety concerns and potential crises.

Although many proponents suggest that SMR’s will be able to be constructed off-site in an assembly line-like style that will reduce cost, Dr. Lyman testified that SMR’s will be more expensive than larger nuclear plants and will at best achieve parody with the economy of scale provided by such plants.

Even if SMR’s were safer and cheaper than traditional nuclear power plants, they will still pose enormous environmental and public health risks in the case of an unforeseen incident, as we are currently seeing in Japan.  And, by multiplying the number of reactors and the sites in which they are located, we will be multiplying the chance for extreme environmental incidents, which seem to be increasing in both number and magnitude, to affect the safety of our nuclear fleet.  In addition, SMR’s will still produce the same highly dangerous radioactive waste for which we still do not have a permanent storage plan.  The plan to use Yucca Mountain as a geological repository has been temporarily tabled and there is heated debate in Congress and throughout the country over what our plan for nuclear waste storage should be in the United States.

Follow Germany’s Lead

The only true solution to nuclear waste is to stop producing it.  Similarly, the only way to guarantee prevention of a nuclear incident such as a meltdown or loss of containment is to stop using nuclear energy.  We should follow the courageous and innovative lead of Germany, and institute a plan to phase out nuclear power in America while moving towards cleaner, safer, and more sustainable energy sources.  Furthermore, if we are looking to develop an export market, we should spend the resources on research and development for more sustainable energy sources, the inevitable future of energy.  Currently about 20 percent of the United States’ electric energy comes from nuclear energy.  By dedicating more time, money and resources to nuclear energy we will only be further entrenching ourselves in a dangerous, failed technology.

Scott McDonald,  Public Citizen Summer Intern,  Senior at Fordham University