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

Despite the Legislature’s attempt to lift Minnesota’s 17-year moratorium on new nuclear power plants, don’t expect any new plants here soon. In fact, the fate of nuclear power could be sealed.  

nrc.gov
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.