Michael Hiltzik: Nuclear energy backers say it's vital for the fight against global warming. Don't be so sure
The enthusiasm overlooks some inescapable truths about nuclear power. For one thing, it's been badly managed in the U.S.
No one would have believed this possible only a few years ago, but nuclear energy has been creeping up in public estimation, despite its long record of unfulfilled promise and cataclysmic missteps.
The impetus has come from government and big business, among other sources.
Billions of dollars in incentives to keep existing nuclear plants operating and to get new nuclear technologies off the drawing board were enacted as part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed late last year by President Joe Biden.
Byron Wein, vice chairman of the big institutional investor Blackstone, listed among his predictions for 2022 that "the nuclear alternative for power generation enters the arena ... and the viability of nuclear power is widely acknowledged."
Some celebrity entrepreneurs have weighed in, without demonstrating that they have given the issue the thorough consideration it deserves. Elon Musk last month tweeted that "unless susceptible to extreme natural disasters, nuclear power plants should not be shut down."
Musk didn't, however, define "extreme natural disasters" or mention the myriad other reasons that a plant might need to be shuttered, such as advanced age, upside-down economics or dangers in its own design or operation.
Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey followed with his own endorsement of nuclear power Tuesday, tweeting that " generating more energy , not less, increases quality of life for all." But that's only true if you set aside the question of how that electricity is generated — precisely the issue at the heart of the global warming crisis.
The explicit rationale for the repositioning of nuclear power as a "green technology" is concern about global warming. Nuclear proponents argue that as a non-carbon source of energy, nuclear fission is an indispensable alternative to the burning of oil, gas and coal and a transitional technology, on the path to fully renewable resources such as the sun and wind.
That was the argument voiced in a Nov. 21 op-ed in The Times by former Energy Secretaries Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz: "Reconsidering the future of Diablo Canyon is now urgently needed in advancing the public good," they wrote, referring to the Pacific Gas & Electric nuclear plant scheduled to be shut down starting in 2024.
Yet the enthusiasm overlooks some inescapable truths about nuclear power.
The history of nuclear power in America is one of rushed and slipshod engineering, unwarranted assurances of public safety, political influence and financial chicanery, inept and duplicitous regulators, and mismanagement on a grand scale.
Many of the problems originated in the government's decision to place the technology in the hands of the utility industry, which was ill-equipped to handle anything so complicated.
This record accounts for the technology's deplorable public reputation, which has made it almost impossible to build a new nuclear plant in the U.S. for decades. Forgetting the history threatens to stage the same drama over again.
The debate over the nuclear power future is really two separate debates.
First, there are the optimistic expectations raised by alternatives to the design of the 93 reactors currently in operation in the U.S. — reactors in which a radioactive core heats water, producing steam to drive electricity-generating turbines.
Then there's the question of what to do with the existing reactors, many of which have lasted well beyond their design lives. Only 28 of these have remained "competitive" — that is, economically viable — according to energy expert Amory Lovins .
That existing fleet includes Diablo Canyon, whose owner, PG&E, said the plant was facing an unprofitable future when it made the decision to abandon plans to seek a permit renewal from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Many alternative reactor designs are pitched as if they're novel. They're not. A good example is the Natrium reactor, which is cooled not by water but liquid sodium and is being promoted by TerraPower, a firm founded by Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates.
Far from an advanced new technology, sodium-cooled reactors date from the very dawn of the nuclear power age. They were considered as an alternative to water-cooled reactors for submarine power plants, for example, by Adm. Hyman Rickover, the founder of America's nuclear navy.
Rickover, whose rigorous standards for technology and crew training made the nuclear navy a success, ordered a prototype sodium reactor for the submarine Seawolf. Almost instantly, the technology demonstrated its flaws.
While the Seawolf was still at the dock, the reactor sprung a leak. "It took us three months, working 24 hours a day, to locate and correct" the leak, Rickover told a congressional committee in 1957.
Rickover abandoned any thought of using the reactors in his submarines, finding them "expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shut down as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair," as he advised his Navy superiors and technical experts at the Atomic Energy Commission in late 1956 and early 1957.
The drawbacks of sodium technology should resonate especially loudly for Californians.
The 1959 explosion of a sodium-cooled test reactor at the government's secretive Santa Susana Field Laboratory outside Simi Valley remains the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, venting an immense amount of radioactivity into the air and creating what former California EPA Director Jared Blumenfeld called " one of the most toxic sites in the United States by any kind of definition."
The three entities controlling portions of the site — Boeing Co., the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA — reached agreements with the state in 2007 and 2010 binding them to restore the site to "background" standards. Much of the work still hasn't begun.
"There's been a kind of cult that's been trying to keep this technology alive for decades" despite persistent evidence of its inadequate reliability or sustainability, says Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the author of a report challenging safety and efficiency claims made for Natrium, among other alternative technologies.
"Pretty effective lobbyists" push the idea that "this is somehow a breakthrough technology that's going to transform nuclear power," Lyman said of sodium-cooled reactors.
"History tells us that it's not a very reliable source of power and has a number of safety and security disadvantages that make one wonder why there's such enthusiasm for it," he said. None of the other alternatives, he adds, solve the most pressing problem of nuclear power: what to do with the radioactive waste produced by every plant.
TerraPower says it settled on liquid sodium technology because experimental testing had shown that it could be managed safely.
"The U.S. has decades and decades of experience in operating sodium reactors," including the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which was operated in Idaho by the Argonne National Laboratory from 1964 to 1994, says Jeff Navin, a former Energy Department official under Chu and Moniz who is now TerraPower's spokesman. "We're not starting from square one."
Long lead time
But Navin acknowledges that the technology hasn't been used in any commercial power plants, and TerraPower's utility partner, PacifiCorp, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway (the conglomerate controlled by Warren Buffett), which is to take over the project once it's operational, has no experience running a nuclear plant.
In any case, the Natrium reactor won't become operational until 2028 at the earliest. That's a deadline imposed by the government's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which is providing some of the funding.
Lyman says the question of whether to keep existing plants in operation can be addressed only on a case-by-case basis. "In some cases, it could make sense" to keep a plant operating even if it's uneconomical, he told me, but only if any existing safety concerns are resolved.
He cautions against "fetishizing nuclear power so it's part of every solution." His view is "you don't compromise safety to keep a nuclear plant open so you can meet a carbon target — you need to have minimum, stringent safety standards."
By that measure, there's hardly any doubt that Diablo Canyon should be shut down, and the sooner the better.
The plant's history makes that case.
Diablo Canyon, which is on the Pacific shoreline about 250 miles south of San Francisco and 190 miles north of Los Angeles, was the third location chosen by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for a nuclear generating plant starting in the early 1960s.
The previous choices were abandoned because they were judged too close to active earthquake faults — even though PG&E initially asserted in both cases that no faults were nearby. The company then turned to Diablo Canyon, again asserting that there were no active faults within about 20 miles of the site.
As it eventually emerged, there are at least four major active faults within that range, prompting David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and the founder of Friends of the Earth, to jokingly describe nuclear reactors as "complex technological devices for locating earthquake faults." (It was the Sierra Club's endorsement of Diablo Canyon that prompted Brower to resign and form Friends of the Earth.)
With every discovery of a new fault in Diablo Canyon's vicinity, PG&E minimized the threat and persuaded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal regulator responsible for licensing nuclear plants, to go along.
The NRC's decision in 1981 to allow construction to proceed after a fault discovery without reexamining the plant's seismic engineering provoked two commissioners, Peter A. Bradford and Victor Gilinsky, to issue a blistering dissent .
They described the confidence of two NRC advisory boards in the utility's reassurances as "almost mystical," and charged that the boards' rationales for accepting PG&E's arguments as evidence that neither board "had any idea what it was talking about."
Then there's PG&E's atrocious safety record, which should curdle the blood at the thought of leaving the plant under its control. The company's consistent failures include the 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight and leveled an entire residential neighborhood in San Bruno.
PG&E's equipment sparked more than 1,500 fires from 2014 through 2017, according to state records. In 2020, it pleaded guilty to 84 counts of criminal manslaughter related to the 2018 wildfire that all but destroyed the town of Paradise and ranks as the deadliest blaze in California history.
In September, the company was charged with 11 felonies and 20 misdemeanor counts related to what Shasta County Dist. Atty. Stephanie Bridgett called its "reckless and criminally negligent" operations, resulting in the deaths of four people. ("My co-workers are not criminals," PG&E Chief Executive Patti Poppe said after the charges were unveiled. "We welcome our day in court so people can learn just that.")
As recently as Tuesday, California state investigators concluded that a PG&E power line sparked last year's massive Dixie fire , which burned more than 960,000 acres in five Northern California counties. The investigators referred the case to local criminal prosecutors.
"PG&E seems to be incapable of operating safely," says Daniel O. Hirsch, a former environmental faculty member at UC Santa Cruz and president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an anti-nuclear group. "You're mixing an incompetent utility with an unforgiving technology."
It's possible that nuclear power will turn out to be as indispensable in fighting global warming as its promoters claim. It's inaccurate to say the jury is out — it hasn't even been seated yet. The danger is that claims for the future of nuclear energy — that it will be a cheap and efficient path to a carbon-free future — will be as illusory as those of the past, when nuclear power was also promoted as safe and "too cheap to meter."
Today's younger environmental activists may be more inclined to accept these promises today because their thinking wasn't forged in the anti-nuclear protests of the 1960s and 1970s, as was that of their older colleagues. The danger is that they, and society, may have to learn the harsh lessons of nuclear power's past all over again.
Michael Hiltzik is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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