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Whitman is wrong; nuclear power is not best energy solution

From Louis Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, in response to Christine Todd Whitman’s piece, “Emissions will not reduce themselves. We need a plan” (Nov. 13 For the Record):

Nuclear power is not a solution to the energy questions facing the Carolinas. Indeed, the expansion of nuclear power would make the problems worse. Nuclear power fails on many counts.

The promise of jobs and prosperity makes nuclear sound appealing. But at $7 billion per reactor, the taxpayer foots a large share of the nuclear bill: a recent nuclear power plant license required a promise of $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees to sooth the fears of private investors. Also, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 has the government cover nuclear cost overruns caused by regulatory delays up to $2 billion. Similarly, the Act established a production tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour for new nuclear power plants, another billion-dollar allocation. Economic uncertainty picks the pockets of residential customers too. In 2007 the N.C. General Assembly allowed utilities to have customers pay for new power plants up front, before the first watt is generated. This is not prosperity, it is corporate welfare.

Dirty and unsafe

Nuclear plants require enormous amounts of water. A single plant may consume more than the largest cities in a given state combined. And fully two-thirds of the heat produced to make steam to run the turbines is flushed down the drain as hot water, unusable. Meanwhile, high river water temperatures and falling reservoir levels are creating unsafe conditions for nuclear power plants because they have no off switch; they must have water to avoid overheating. During the 2007 drought, low water levels at Lake Norman caused the utility to struggle to keep McGuire’s cooling water intakes filled.

Nuclear is unsafe. Reactors at the Catawba nuclear power plant do not comply with NRC fire protection regulations adopted in 1980, a persistent failure which poses an increased risk of accident in 2013. And 35 nuclear plants are at risk from dam failure, including McGuire.

Nuclear pollutes. Accidental releases of radioactive contaminants are common to virtually all nuclear power reactors. Over 400 leaks have occurred, some releasing millions of gallons of polluted water. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does little to prevent these violations; during the last four years no fines have been issued despite the two dozen leaks which occurred. Routine releases of radioactive gases from pressurized water reactors, such as those at Catawba and McGuire, are the result of nuclear operations’ standard cleaning process. The negative human health impacts are measurable, legal and permitted by the NRC.

Federal emergency planning for nuclear power plants is inadequate. The radioactive contaminants from the nuclear accident at Fukushima affected air, water, soil and agricultural products over a wide area. Radiation spreads in unpredictable ways, yet emergency planning in the U.S. extends only 10 miles. If a severe accident occurred at the McGuire or Catawba nuclear plant, where would 200,000 Charlotteans within that radius go? What if the accident occurred during rush hour?

Nuclear is not the solution to air pollution or global warming, simply because it is so expensive and carries insupportable risks. We can do better.

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