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After Japan, plans for more nuclear power plants are all but over

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In Minnesota, radioactive waste is stored on a floodplain at Prairie Island.

Despite the Legislature's attempt to lift Minnesota's 17-year moratorium on new nuclear power plants and President Obama's plan that taxpayers assume the financial risk of building several more plants in the United States, the morass of issues surrounding nukes makes it unlikely that a new fission nuclear plant will be operational in Minnesota for at least the next half century.    

And as the frightening events of the earthquake and tsunami-ravaged nuclear plants in Japan plays out — not just now, which is bad enough, but for years to come with news reports of contaminated food and water, radiation sickness and premature death — the fate of nuclear power could be sealed.   

The very worst case is if a meltdown occurs at one or more of the four Fukushima reactors and prevailing westerly winds shift and carry a highly radioactive cloud 150 miles into the Tokyo megalopolis (the city alone has nearly 13 million people). The chilling scenario is too horrible to imagine.   

But Japan's unfolding disaster only shovels dirt on the nukes' grave.  

The high promise of the 1950s that nuclear would provide cheap, reliable power and its more recent promise of providing an answer to greenhouse gases from coal plants began to unravel with the nation's decades-long failure to find a politically acceptable storage site for growing piles of radioactive wastes.  The problems continued with safety fears stoked in 1979 with a partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Penn., and again in 1986 with the Chernobyl meltdown in the Ukraine.  

In all, a half century of tangled events — some technical, some emotional and lots political — have conspired to present daunting challenges for nuclear power. It all came to a head a few years back when lenders, faced with surging cost overruns and prolonged regulatory review, determined that financial risk of new plants is too great.    

With the present disaster in Japan, industry uncertainty has grown even more, regulatory and other delays will surely increase, and building costs will be a whole lot higher.   

The industry's only hope is for the federal government to step up and assume financial risk to build new plants just as it did more than 50 years ago when Congress took over a major insurance risk for nuclear plants.  

That's why Obama is pushing a $54.5 billion package to have the federal government guarantee loans to build nuclear plants (a good analysis of Obama's nuclear policy is here). Back in 1957 Congress passed the Price Anderson Act, which limited operator liability in the event of a nuclear accident, overcoming a major hurdle at the time because power companies couldn't afford private-market insurance for their projects.  

Minnesota's role
Nuclear power's history provides a trove of missed opportunities, safety fears and an often contradictory mix of political ideology. Through it all, Minnesota has played an important role.

In the 1960s, Earl Ewald, the visionary CEO of Northern States Power Company (NSP, now part of Xcel Energy), was convinced that nuclear was the power source of the future, despite the company's cost and safety troubles with its Pathfinder plant near Sioux Falls, S.D. (The plant was abandoned due to high cost and safety issues shortly after it opened in 1967).  

In 1971 NSP built the 600-megawatt generator at Monticello, Minn., and applied for permits to build twin 500-megawatt generators at Prairie Island near Red Wing, Minn., (completed in 1973).

The process was watched closely by U.S. power companies and by the powerful — now defunct — U.S. House-Senate Joint Atomic Energy Committee in Washington.  That's because the fledgling Minnesota Pollution Control Agency sought to regulate radioactive discharges from the nuclear plants, something that no other state had tried (see Dr. Dean Abrahamson's splendid historical piece in MinnPost).

It was a hot and humid summer day in the late 1960s at a public hearing on the proposed Prairie Island plant when a withered elder of the Mdewakanton Sioux spoke: "My counsel to you is something my father told me: 'Measure twice and cut once.'" He looked each hearing officer in the eye as he slowly repeated his advice, for emphasis.  

The issue then was over a planned federal nuclear-waste storage facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain and some other sites. NSP assured regulators that a waste repository would be completed by the time Prairie Island opened, and so the Indian elder and others need not worry about disposal of "spent" fuel rods. (Although "spent" rods no longer generate sufficient heat to spin turbines, they still contain material that remains highly radioactive for thousands of years.)     

But no federal waste site ever opened, and political wrangling over the Yucca site has pushed development out another decade — or at least until Yucca opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., leaves Congress. Obama has defunded the Yucca site.  

And so radioactive wastes are stored at all 104 plants across the United States.  In Minnesota, rad-wastes are stored on a floodplain at Prairie Island, where wary tribal residents continue to live and where NSP and regulators made "the cut" and built without, it turns out, making certain of a critical measure as the elder long ago warned. At Monticello, rad-wastes are stored upstream and upwind of the Twin Cities — a site that surely wouldn't be allowed today.

Dayton's position     
The waste-storage issue won't go away.  Gov. Mark Dayton opposes lifting the state's moratorium on nuclear power plants: (1) until a waste site is developed, (2) until it's assured that spent fuel won't be turned into weapons grade plutonium (a controversial subject involving dicey issues like nuclear proliferation in an age of Iran and North Korea), and (3) until it's assured that Xcel ratepayers won't be on the hook for ever-growing nuclear-plant development costs.   

In other words, with Dayton as governor Minnesota's nuclear moratorium won't be lifted. But it all may be moot, because Xcel officials have said they have no plans for a nuclear plant in Minnesota or anywhere else in their multi-state territory.  

One of the tangles in the nuclear debate is the curious ideological juxtaposition in which most nuclear proponents dislike government subsidies of private industry and don't want government to "pick winners and losers." Both Obama and Sen. John McCain — and even former Minnesota governor and now presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty — have said nuclear power plants are needed to provide reliable power without adding greenhouse gases. But the only way to accomplish that is for the federal government to continue to provide massive subsidies and assume even more financial risk because private lenders and insurers have shown they believe nuclear power is too costly and risky.  

McCain has said he'd like to see 45 new nuclear power plants built in the United States by 2030, something mouthed by Pawlenty as he angled to get on McCain's presidential ticket in 2008.  At about $10 billion a pop, that would mean putting federal taxpayers on the hook for a half trillion dollars to aid a single energy sector.  

And since Obama's plan would cap loan guarantees at $54 billion, it means the federal government would be "picking winners and losers" by backing only the first few new plants.  Meantime, other alternative-energy sources like solar, wind and thermal are starved of front-end cash for them to get to viability.  

Another curious political cross-current arose when nuclear power advocates, for the most part, opposed so-called "cap and trade" policies that would drive up costs of spewing carbon and other climate-altering gases into the atmosphere.  This would be accomplished by regulators setting a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions and forcing polluters to purchase ("trade" for) credits at ever-increasing costs. "Cap and trade" had initial appeal because it relied on a market-sector device to assign "external" costs to pollution.

As governor, Pawlenty embraced a major carbon-reduction bill passed overwhelmingly by the 2007 Legislature, and he later worked with then-Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, to develop a Midwestern group to implement cap and trade and other policies to combat climate change.  

The cap-and-trade approach was strongly supported by nuclear power advocates because it would help make nuclear more attractive financially.    

However, Tea Party adherents and other political conservatives derided cap and trade as "cap and tax" and have made it a litmus test of conservatism. Pawlenty, who needs Republican conservatives next year in primary states, has done an about face on cap and trade or other carbon-reducing policies, putting him squarely at odds with the nuclear industry he says he supports.    

Safety worries
Through it all, questions of the safety of nuclear plants has been at the core of most political debates.  

Whether plants are safe is a matter of perspective. Nuclear advocates claim technical redundancies in modern plants result in less radiation than, say, one is exposed to on daytime commercial airplane flights. And that may be true. But it's also true that SUV vehicles are "safe" until they roll over or hit a bridge, or that railroad chemical tankers are "safe" until they jump a track.  

In fact, nuclear power plants contain some pretty nasty stuff, as the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl proved, and which is now apparent by the unfolding disaster in Japan.  Nuclear proponents were gaining support on the safety issue until the Japan earthquake happened, and now safety is of such concern that sales of potassium iodide (to protect from thyroid cancer in the event of excessive radiation levels) are spiking throughout the West Coast.

(In Phoenix, one person displayed his ample supply of potassium iodide he said was protection not from anything in Japan but in case of trouble at the giant, 3200-megawatt Palo Verde plant near the city or trouble at plants upwind in California, an area crisscrossed with earthquake-prone fault lines.)    

Responding to developments in Japan, Obama and European leaders vowed that they will learn from the disaster and examine regulatory and other preparations.  

What they will learn (again) is that nuclear power plants are dangerous places. More safety and protective measures can only add to spiraling construction costs and regulatory reform can only add time and still more cost to a process to build plants that private lenders and insurers say are too risky.      

Ron Way covers the environment and energy issues. He can be reached at rway [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (30)

The synopsis of the situation in Japan in the first few paragraphs seems to contradict every reliable source I've seen. The situation is quite simply that only a handful of workers in the plant itself have received enough radiation to have any chance of posing a health threat. It was reported in MinnPost just a couple of weeks ago that 13,000 people die every year from pollution due to coal. Nuclear may not have been the dream of easy power it was made out to be in the 1950s, but it is by a humongous margin our largest carbon-free energy source. Let's stay level headed about this, eh?

The accident in Japan shows that spent fuel rods stored in pools near the reactor are extremely dangerous. They require active cooling to prevent them from melting down. That means if power is lost, as it was in Japan, heroic measures need to be taken to prevent the release of radioactive material. This is an unacceptable situation.

No additional nuclear reactors should be constructed in this country until a safe waste site is created and the huge backlog of nuclear waste sitting at existing sites is removed from the plants to that site.

Until we are able to do something as simple as take out the garbage, we have no business creating more.

Jeff,

The reason the exposure in Japan has been so limited is because, like Chernobyl, hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated. Meanwhile millions of dollars worth of generating capacity have been permanently destroyed and lost, and the crises is not yet over. This is scenario that is simply impossible with any other form of generation. This is an unsustainable source of energy, just because it's not the only unsustainable source of energy doesn't make it safe or economical.

I agree that the enormous costs -- both economic and environmental -- of nuclear energy make it dead in the water.

And speaking of water, I find that the scariest thing in this article full of very scary things is actually the caption under the photo:
"In Minnesota, radioactive waste is stored on a floodplain at Prairie Island."

On a floodplain!

People have been evacuated due to the risk, not the reality. When the alternative is more coal-burning plants, I am still very interested in nuclear energy.

I have to say though, building nuclear plants in an earthquake zone seems awfully short-sighted.

Paul,

that's simply not the case. Chernobyl was a fundamentally different kind of reactor that was outdated and poorly designed and had a much different worst-case scenario than either the Japan reactor or any operating in the United States. The amount of radiation being emitted in the two situations is orders of magnitude different.

Energy is not a situation where you get to sit back and criticize each possibility that gets put on the table - a habit of liberals, of which I consider myself one. Nuclear has some issues. Wind kills birds. Solar panels take oil to make. It goes on indefinitely, but at the end of the day, you get to pick one or turn out the lights. What's your suggestion?

Jeff, pay attention:

http://www.minnpost.com/worldcsm/2011/03/23/26840/tokyo_tap_water_too_ra...

Stories like this have been out there for months. And, although the Japanese government has mostly been reassuring, how many people would listen to a government official who says lettuce containing 164 times the legal limit of radiation is safe to eat? Would you?

From the article:
"“Even if you drink this water for one year, it will not affect people’s health,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said."

Chicken Little should be our state bird.

Jeff #8: Nice cherry picking. Or maybe not.

From my post #7: "And, although the Japanese government has mostly been reassuring, how many people would listen to a government official who says lettuce containing 164 times the legal limit of radiation is safe to eat? Would you?"

(awaiting your answer...)

While you ponder that, hark back to the days following 911 when the Bush administration assured the first responders, other workers, and nearby residents that the air was safe to breathe when it really, really wasn't. Many of those folks are now paying a major price for believing that pronouncement.

Ggoogle -Christie Whitman air is safe to breathe- to see for yourself.

I hope you read the entire article. It's about equally comprised of ominous statements and reassuring government pronouncements. Groucho Marx's quip comes to mind--"Are you going to believe me or your own eyes"?

More to the point, are you willing to bet your life that the reassurances are all correct?

Look, if your argument is "nuclear isn't perfect" then I agree with you. But that's not how life works. Cars crash, you still drive them. Fish can be contaminated with mercury, most people still eat it. It goes on and on. Just pointing out that there are *problems* with nuclear doesn't get to the final point, which is, what's best, and what do you suggest?

As for the lettuce, no, I wouldn't eat it - that's why they were checking it. But it almost certainly wouldn't hurt me if I did. We are cowering in fear over a relatively minor incidence because it's so dramatic, but we do nothing about climate change, which is the real catastrophe.

For the umpteenth time, Minnesota has the lowest earthquake risk of any state in the continental USA. http://www.mapwatch.com/gallery/earthquake-ground-motion-map.jpg (white ain't snow cover).

Also, no Tsunami risk here. We should learn from the Japan quakes, perhaps having cooling pools located below the river level go gravity can be used as a last ditch backup.

The nuclear industry has yet to convince me that it treats the safety of the public as nearly as important as the discovery of the lowest possible cost to building plants and the maximum profits possible in operating them, both of which require cutting corners on safety.

Perhaps the largest truth involved in nuclear power, beyond the truth that humans make mistakes, is that THINGS happen.

Unless and until a plant is designed whose failsafe mechanisms are able to completely shut down the nuclear reaction including safely cooling the reactor vessel down to ambient temperature then sealing the vessel itself, all of which automatically kick in without human intervention in a variety of emergency situations, especially if the plant's own electrical grid goes dead (which the nuclear power industry likes to pretend is now the case but, which is absolutely NOT so),...

A design requirement that would likely make nuclear plants prohibitively expensive, I will not be in favor of building more nuclear power plants. That plants are not yet designed and built in exactly this way is unconscionable.

That nuclear waste is anywhere stored in such a way as to render it as vulnerable to the THINGS that inevitably happen, as we see in Japan, and at Prairie Island, is unbelievably irresponsible.

We have to wait a while and hold judgment until we see HOW MUCH radiation escapes. Fortunately, radiation can be detected at extremely low levels such that we can measure the natural radiation levels produced by nature coming from the earth and sky in Colorado as being two or three times higher than the natural radiation levels in Florida, for example. Colorado residents could cut their yearly radiation dose by more than half by moving to Florida. But no one flees the "dangerous radiation" in Colorado. Why? Health statistics do not show any higher rates of cancer in Colorado than in states of lower radiation levels. Radiation can be measured easily at levels which do not produce any harmful effect on humans to the best of our ability to detect harmful effects. Thus, we can say those levels are COMPLETELY SAFE to the best of our scientific knowledge. If the levels escaping from the Japanese plant simply increase the dose to nearby residents from a Florida radiation level to a Colorado radiation level it will be measurable but of no observed health consequence. We must not attach any negative health consequence to the phrases "radiation" or "increased radiation" or "double the levels of radiation" or "radiation detected" which we read in the press. We must know the actual dose. It is now well recognized by public health officials that the TMI meltdown in 1979 did not release enough radiation to cause any human health effect. No one died from the TMI accident although detectable levels of radiation were released and it may be that no one will die from the Japanese accident. Meanwhile, many people die each year from coal production and oil production. Coal fired electric power plants are not ABSOLUTELY SAFE. Producing gasoline for our cars is not ABSOLUTELY SAFE. There is no ABSOLUTELY SAFE activity you can pursue in life. ADEQUATE SAFETY is all that exists and that is a matter of accurate risk comparison.

Greg, in regards to you first paragraph, has *coal* convinced you otherwise? If not, why is everyone giving it a free pass while focusing on this one nuclear incident?

Jeff, Dave, and others who seem to be advocating nuclear power:

First, safety is safety, are you saying these evacuations are unnecessary? Are you saying there is no and has been no "real" danger? Are you willing to go live next to this power plant for a year to prove your point? You want to feed this contaminated water, milk, and vegetables to your kids?

Do you have any idea what the economic impact of these huge evacuations is? And the economic cost of trucking safe water and food into the contaminated areas? Are you saying that the combined costs of these evacuations, government subsidized liability limitations, waste management, and ongoing construction, maintenance, and upgrades makes nuclear power economically feasible? Because if you are- the nuclear industry would beg to differ; that's why they aren't building any new plants unless they're completely shielded from these costs.

Again, none of events or problems are an issue with ANY other form of power generation.

As for the nuclear option, We already have more waste than we can handle even if we opened Yucca Mountain. You want to replace coal with nuclear? Well here are the numbers: currently coal provides 23% of our electricity, and nuclear 8.5%. Given our increasing demand that means we'd have to build over two hundred nuclear plants in the next ten years, more if we finally start decommissioning old nuclear plants. Even if we decided to today to start building all those plants, or even just one, it would be fifteen years before those reactors came online, at least. And when it was all done we'd triple our nuclear waste production and costs and likelihood of accidents. Do you guys really think this is feasible? You really think this is a good idea? You really think this is gonna happen? Seriously? Stop pretending your the only ones talking about reality.

You're gonna say the new reactors are safer. Well I remind you that we've been told that before, and NONE of the accidents that have happened anywhere were supposed to happen in the first place. We were told that all of these melt-downs and partial melt-downs were impossible because of design, redundancy, and training. You can keep drinking this kool-aid if you want. However I draw your attention the fact that the nuclear industry refuses to build new reactors, and refused to build them in the first place, unless they are shielded from liability from accidents. That's how much confidence THEY have in these the safety of these reactors.

Liberals have been conned into accepting nuclear danger because the industry underestimates the true cost of nuclear, making it look way cheaper than it really is. Liberal's have also drank the zero sum energy kool-aid that ignores savings we could get out of an updated and efficient energy grid, decreased consumption, and renewable alternatives.

Nuclear power has actually encouraged oil and gas consumption because the policy assumption has always been when those fuels got too rare or expensive we could transition to nuclear. The thinking is/was that eventually people would accept the danger when the energy crises became severe enough. It's no accident that we've done absolutely nothing to develop sustainable energy, and control consumption since the first energy crises in 1973. Is nuclear the only feasible option? Of course not.

//Health statistics do not show any higher rates of cancer in Colorado than in states of lower radiation levels. Radiation can be measured easily at levels which do not produce any harmful effect on humans to the best of our ability to detect harmful effects

Yes Don, we just made-up safe radiation levels. They can be ignored because Colorado is more radio-active than Florida. Really? Oh wait, a thought occurs: what happens when you add the radiation of a nuclear accident to the radiation of levels of Colorado or any other background radiation? And after all, all naturally occurring radiation poisoning is perfectly safe; that's why no one worries about radon. Of course it perfectly scientific from an epidemiological perspective to compare contaminated food, soil, and water with background radiation.

Dude, the problem isn't just "radiation", the problem is specific isotopes like plutonium, and ceasium-137 which are only produced by nuclear fission, they contaminate soil, surfaces, food, and water. You're comparing apples and oranges. You're not getting exposed to caesium-137 or plutonium in Colorado.

No, I think the evacuations are very cautious but reasonable. The economic impact of this? Not good, of course - but it is the first nuclear incident in thirty years so if you look at it that way, not so significant. Would I live next to one? Absolutely. Would I intentionally drink water that has high levels of radiation to prove a point to you? No. I don't see why that matters: people are not drinking it because it was tested.

You talk about reality: Let's see you solve global warming by getting Americans to reduce their consumption. Ha. Yeah right. I'd love to. You're talking to a guy that drives a bike. But I'm not going to sit here and let the planet fry while I wring my hands over nuclear energy and try to convince Americans to give up their Tahoes. The climate change thing is an emergency, and if we're talking about the difference between stuffing a mountain full of nuclear waste versus permanently changing the climate of the planet, I know which one sounds scarier to me.

All you're doing is pointing out the problems. Which is fine, for a start. But calling nuclear dangerous or problematic means nothing. The only thing that is meaningful is dangerous or problematic compared to what. That's it. And I've already pointed out a half dozen times how coal kills far, far more than nuclear, and emits carbon. I don't know what other metric to use.

Could be I'm wasting my time here. But, before I hang it up I have to hearken back to Jeff's comment above (#6), to wit:

"Energy is not a situation where you get to sit back and criticize each possibility that gets put on the table - a habit of liberals, of which I consider myself one. Nuclear has some issues. Wind kills birds. Solar panels take oil to make. It goes on indefinitely, but at the end of the day, you get to pick one or turn out the lights. What's your suggestion?"

Come off it, Jeff. A lot of people, some of them liberals, have been recommending alternatives for years.

Start with conservation. We haven't done nearly enough in this area. Years ago the republicans in Congress undid a Clinton initiative to require stricter energy consumption standards in appliances. Jimmy Carter wanted higher mileage requirements for cars and higher standards for home weatherization, all undone when Saint Reagan took over. Conservation--in all sectors of our energy economy--could save enormous amounts of energy.

Then there's wind and solar. Of course they have "issues," as you put it. So what? There's no free lunch. Equating their issues with nuke issues is what we liberals like to call "false equivalence."

Then there's coal plants. I don't like them any more than you do, but they're here to stay and, whether we like it or not, they'll be a part of our energy portfolio for the foreseeable future. The trick will be to minimize the need for them by tapping other sources, better stack emission control, re-powering them with natural gas, closing old dirty plants that the power companies kept open with the "minor repairs" loophole, and in other proven ways limiting their impacts on human health and the environment.

The fact is, Jeff, we don't have to "pick one." In fact, putting all your eggs in one basket would be nuts.

On to nukes. They are simply too dangerous. We have no idea how decommission a site, other than to put razor wire around it and guard it for 10,000 years. We have not, in 60 some odd years, figured out how to permanently and safely dispose of the waste. Even if we did, transporting the waste to a Yucca Mountain provides a fat target for anyone who wants to make a really nasty weapon of mass destruction. Most of all, when something goes wrong at a nuke, people panic. Who can blame them? Japan not only has food contamination and tap water issues, they know from hideous experience that the effects of radiation have short and long term effects that go well beyond instant death--cancer, birth defects, other chronic diseases--and they last for generations.

When we have legitimate resolutions to those issues, and not just wishful thinking, I'll get behind nukes.

I agree: we DO need a multi-pronged approach. We have to hit climate change with every weapon we have, and nuclear is one of them. You could get there by conservation and wind and solar - if you had a country full of reasonable people and liberal politicians. But we don't. The amount of funding it would take to make the renewables more than 10% of our capacity in any reasonable time frame is absolutely out of the question. I would do it if I were in charge, but I'm not, and frankly, I've given up on the dream.

By eliminating nuclear as an option, you're tacitly agreeing to the expansion of coal. I just can't figure out any other way to see it.

I'd rather be responsible for guarding a waste site for 10,000 years than going out into the atmosphere and plucking out all of the C02 for the next million.

//Not good, of course - but it is the first nuclear incident in thirty years so if you look at it that way, not so significant. Would I live next to one? Absolutely. Would I intentionally drink water that has high levels of radiation to prove a point to you? No. I don't see why that matters: people are not drinking it because it was tested.

Put another way, this is the third nuclear incident in the past 50 years, compared with zero comparable incidents in any other type of generator. Can you guarantee that this is the worse nuclear accident we're going to see in the next 500 years? Again, none of the accidents we've seen were supposed to possible in the first place. Sure, let's just stop testing, problem solved, what people don't know won't hurt them?

You keep going on about coal, I haven't seen anyone here advocate coal so I don't who you're arguing with. All I'm pointing out is that these accidents, costs, liabilities, and contamination are unique to nuclear power, and they are not an asset. When as the last time 200,000 people had be evacuated from an area around a coal or natural gas power plant? Or warned not to drink the tap water or milk? And I'll point out that these reactors are now completely toast, never ever ever to be used again, another unique characteristic of nuclear power. Even a burst dam can be rebuilt but these reactors cannot even be safely dismantled let alone repaired. So much for a reliable energy source.

As for global warming, you're creating a zero sum game, either we go nuclear or fry on an over-warmed planet. Not so. As Will has already pointed out we've never even established any kind of rational energy policy beyond protecting existing markets. You can't look at that track record and declare "game over" we gotta go nuclear. As I've already pointed out, a power source that won't come online for at least 15, probably closer to 20 years, is hardly a solution to a problem that needs immediate attention.

This attempt to shift the dialogue away from the liabilities of nuclear power and into the problem of global warming is not a bad PR ploy but fails to produce a viable policy.

What do I want to do about global warming? Well for one thing we could start by creating rational energy policy designed to minimize CO2 production without replacing it with a dead end technology. I'm firmly convinced if we were to engage in a Manhatten for renewable and clean energy we could do it. I also know we could sharply reduce our consumption without seriously impacting our quality of life. We're losing trillions of volts in an degraded and inefficient power grid for instance.

We could take millions of cars off the roads within five years with a nationwide bullet train system that would also provide an alternative to aircraft. Mass transit construction in every major city would also dramatically reduce gas consumption and emissions.

Yes wind and solar currently produce uneven power curves but improved technology can smooth that out. In any event we could reduce the reliance coal and gas by transforming them into role akin to a back-up source for stability. There are a lot of people a lot more knowledgeable than me with much better ideas. Maybe now that nuclear is dead in the water... again, we'll get chance to hear from those people.

//But we don't. The amount of funding it would take to make the renewables more than 10% of our capacity in any reasonable time frame is absolutely out of the question.

You're not going to get hundreds of nuclear reactors online any faster- again 15 to 20 years per reactor. We're better off pursuing all of the alternatives and developing new ones. I say anyone who thinks we're going to get hundreds of reactors online in time to make a dent in climate change is living in the fantasy world.

I agree we should do all those things you're listing off. But the goals to curb global warming are stunning. I think we should build wind, solar, cut consumption. But that's not enough. The reason I keep bringing up coal is to make the point that it's actually way more harmful - even if you set aside the carbon aspect - and yet it doesn't scare everyone because it's simply not as sexy. Sure there were no specific incidents with, say, a coal plant or natural gas plant - no, they just consistently kill via pollution, slowly and steadily. Our fears aren't based on ration and numbers, they're based on emotion. Nuclear power hasn't killed *anyone* in this country *ever*. And can I guarantee this is as bad as it gets? More or less, yes - it is absolutely impossible for a Japan or US-style reactor to have a "Chernobyl". You're already looking at the worst case. From a reactor that was built on the shore of an earthquake-prone country.

Also, I have no idea where 15-20 years comes from, considering, as pointed out in the article, the ones we have were built in 3.

//More or less, yes - it is absolutely impossible for a Japan or US-style reactor to have a "Chernobyl". You're already looking at the worst case. From a reactor that was built on the shore of an earthquake-prone country.

Who said anything about Chernobyl? 23 reactors in this country could have a Japanese type accident. It's the same GE reactor design that the NRC said never should have been built in the first place. Any nuclear power plant can have a hydrogen explosion. We have several reactors built on known fault lines, the Diablo Canyon plant for instance. The Diablo Canyon Plant was supposed to built to withstand a 7.3 quake, ant that was when it opened in 1985. It's sitting on one of the most active and destructive fault lines on the planet. The earth doesn't know it's not supposed to quake above 7.2 in the area- the scale goes up to 10 and that plant is already 20 years beyond it initial operating specs.

The 15 to 20 year figure comes from the nuclear industry itself. Sure, 40 years ago you build a nuclear reactor on a fault line next to populated areas in three years, but that's not gonna happen now. The site search, environmental revues, and lawsuits would cause years of delays before the construction could even start. Why do you think no new plants have been built in over 40 years?

By the way, at least 7 people have been killed in civilian nuclear power plants starting in 1961, and it has been estimated that over 400 infants died as a result of exposure to radiation in the Three Mile Island plume.

Just a note on "nuclear waste." It is only "waste" because our congress defined it as such when congress determined spent fuel rods from commercial reactors could not be reprocessed. This was an emotional and psychological "unlinking" of nuclear power with nuclear weapons because spent fuel could be used as a "plutonium ore" from which plutonium is extracted for nuclear weapons. Instead of doing so, the government ran reactors in Idaho just to produce spent fuel from which to extract plutonium and did not allow those reactors to produce electricity for the public. Commercial nuclear reactors produce electricity and waste the spent fuel. Government reactors produce spent fuel and waste the potential electricity they could be producing at the same time. Other countries have not made such an illogical division. They don't have a "spent fuel" problem because they reprocess the spent fuel. We could, and should, reprocess also. Spent fuel is a valuable ore for recycling. Many radioactive materials now used in medicine and in industry could be "mined" from our own spent fuel just like they are now "mined" from foreign spent fuel. The "spent fuel" problem is a political problem, not really a scientific problem.

By the way, there is no evidence of increased childhood cancer of any type in the TMI area. That is a false statistic based upon a false calculation which uses false assumptions.

To date the type of nuclear power plants built and operated in Europe, North America and Asia have been perfectly safe, including all effects from any accidents which have occurred. We will see if the experience from this Japanese plant is any different. Perhaps the plant will release large amounts of radiation. Or perhaps it will demonstrate just how much of a shellacking western style nuke plants can absorb without releasing any harmful levels of radiation. Only time will tell.

Just for clarification Chernobyl was a graphite core reactor. Graphite is basically a very pure form of carbon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphite

Basically think of graphite as extremely hard coal "on steroids". It is not easily ignited but like anthracite coal with enough heat and oxygen it will burn. Graphite has been used in many small research reactors like the original WWII Fermi reactor in Chicago. The Fermi "atomic pile" had an output of only a couple of hundred watts. Chernobyl, in contrast was a large commercial reactor with a million times more power.

Also, Chernobyl did not have a containment structure. It basically had a steel pressure vessel and a lightweight building to keep the weather out. Western commercial reactors have a metal "core", not graphite/carbon like Chernobyl. Also, modern Western commercial reactors have containment structures.

We don't need to wait and see what happens in Japan. They already are perilously close to potentially reaching catastrophic releases of radiation and that's all wee need to know. Nuclear power is not and never will be safe. Take a look at the power plant picture in Red Wing. That water is linked right to the Mississippi. There are litterally tons of spent fuel stored outside in casks waiting for a flood to carry them away. It is bizarre that situation even exists, much the same as incredulousnes at Japan's careless location of plants in an earthquake zone along a coast prone to tsunamis. Couple that with the incredibly high public cost (subsidies to guarantee finance and insurance)and none of it makes sense.

Garden lights, I presume?

We plant the Daisy seeds
and wait...then
watch green sprouts
grow, under a
wasting moon,
in June.

They glow
like iridescent,
effervescent stars
on pallid stems
in our
nuclear garden.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/42208800#42208800

Here's a tour for you anti nuclear luddites who want to go back to the dark ages, and prevent the non white populations of the world to develop American living standards.

Nuclear waste? Go to France and visit their plants that recycle it into more power. I thought you environmentalists liked recycling. You can walk in the lobby of nuclear plants and walk over the residual "waste" buried just underneath.

Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana coast where a nuclear plant provides 10% of electricity for the state for those people who like to take hot showers every day. After the hurricane shut down power for five days along the coast, nothing happened at the nuclear plant because multiple backup systems (lacking in Japan) provided power.

THe reality is, backed up by safety statistics, is that nuclear power is the safest power source available. Windmills kill birds that crap on solar panels.

//Nuclear waste? Go to France and visit their plants that recycle it into more power. I thought you environmentalists liked recycling. You can walk in the lobby of nuclear plants and walk over the residual "waste" buried just underneath.

Nuclear proponents keep pointing to this reprocessing as the "scientific" solution to nuclear waste. As if with the stroke of pen we can make over 80 thousand tons of waste disappear like it's existence is a clerical mistake of some kind. I draw your attention to the fact the reactor currently in most crises in Japan is the reactor that's using this reprocessed nuclear fuel. Turn it's twice as radioactive at the other rods, and therefore much hotter and more dangerous. Maybe the scientific solution of making radioactive waste even more radioactive isn't the big solution after all.