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October 07, 2009 News » Cover Story

Nuclear Utah 

Power Mad: How Sen. Bob Bennett learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power plants.

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Fossil Alternatives
But Makhijani thinks the whole Senate performance to be a way of “hornswoggling” the public. “After 50 years of subsidy, nuclear power is still not ready to stand on its own feet,” he says. “The reality is that capitalists love to go to the (public) trough to get some of the federal goodies for themselves, but they don’t want somebody else to go there—especially if the poor are going there.”

Indeed, Bennett and Co. at least want to guarantee loans for reactor construction. “It could even be used to reduce the national debt—which would be a good thing,” Bennett says. Besides, it would be negligent of any board (presumably, he’s talking about government here) to suck

up its entire balance sheet in one step. Without loan guarantees, the cost of capital would be 30 percent higher, and out of reach.

“It’s hard to say what it will cost,” says Makhijani. “Wall Street refuses to finance nuclear; Moody’s says it’s too risky and the nuclear industry says it won’t build without government guarantees.”

Back at the Blue Castle project, the plan is for total private funding, Tilton says. That’s in the ballpark of $13 billion to $16 billion for construction alone. You have to look at what it will bring to Emery County—$30 million annually, just in property taxes. Somehow, the balance sheets work out to make the venture profitable.

Tilton is actually working only on the licensure—a five-year process. In the past three years, he’s been working on options for land and water, not to mention rounding up political support.

“Let the market decide where the plants should be built, based on considerations such as population, consumer demand and transmission capability,” Bennett said in his written statement. “The plants should go up wherever a builder wants to invest.”

Some of the opposition to the Blue Castle plant concerns the water usage, but Tilton insists that there are 400,000 acre-feet of water in the upper Colorado basin that have been unused since the ‘60s. So Tilton must also try to renegotiate the Colorado River Compact, which has allocated water among seven states, including Utah, since 1922.

Getting a reactor up and going, however, is at least a 12-year process. Despite the 104 operating commercial units in the United States, in addition to 34 research reactors at various universities, nothing new has happened in the past 33 years.

Sources of electricity in the United States
  • 49.8% coal
  • 19.9% nuclear power
  • 17.9% natural gas
  • 3% petroleum
  • 6.5% hydroelectric
  • 2.3% other renewable energy sources such as wind power, solar energy, geothermal power and biomass.

(Source: Energy Information Administration)

Makhijani can frame his opponents’ arguments effectively: “We don’t have any alternatives but nuclear if we want to get rid of fossil sources,” he says. Nuclear proponents appear to be calling for a remedy to global warming, even though they don’t quite buy that global warming is mancaused.

So when Bennett intones, “We have to have access to cheap energy,” he is articulating one of the more appealing reasons to go nuclear. Of course, it’s only cheap if subsidized, and then it’s the taxpayer who pays.

Bennett says that it’s simply wasteful to develop wind, solar or biofuels when they will yield so little energy, but Makhijani takes issue with that statement. A few years ago, his research concluded that the country could get rid of all fossil fuels in 30 to 40 years using new technologies for storage, smart grids and by maintaining reliable sources of energy.

“How do you do that?” he asks. Well, wind and sun are different things. When the sun is shining, the wind may not be blowing and vice versa. The trick is to effectively store energy from either source, and Makhijani believes it’s possible using a system of compressed air storage similar to how tires are taken off cars.

“Wind is a very mature technology now,” he says. Last year, wind energy was a $50 billion industry worldwide—$15 billion to $20 billion in the United States. And the cost of solar energy has been going down.

Nuclear Comeback
Bringing renewable energy to the forefront may be a lofty goal, considering its tiny contribution to overall energy usage. But consider that private funding is more and more available for it, and that the technologies are advancing geometrically. Thirty years is a small tradeoff when you consider the hundreds of years nuclear wastes hang around, as well as the maintenance and safety issues.

‘If you’re concerned about global warming, nuclear can’t do anything fast enough,” says Christopher Thomas of HEAL. “We need to reduce greenhouse gases immediately. It takes seven years to bring a reactor online, and different studies say we would need one every six days just to maintain current levels.”

Nuclear proponents continue to point to France as the Cinderella of nuclear energy. But France has not solved the nuclear-waste problem, and is, in fact, accumulating waste uranium at alarming rates, Makhijani says, noting that they discharge 100 million gallons of radioactive waste into the English Channel each year. “They’ve polluted the oceans all the way to the Arctic,” he says. The French reuse only 1 percent of their spent fuel.

None of this stops the congressional train running headlong towards nuclear energy. Makhijani believes it’s because of the immense Washington lobbying efforts going on. “The constituency for nuclear power is the energy industry itself, spending $1 million a day lobbying,” he says.

In fact, the constituency is much broader than that. A Gallup poll from March found this: “A majority of Americans have been supportive of the use of nuclear energy in the United States in recent years, but this year’s Gallup Environment Poll finds new high levels of support, with 59 percent favoring its use, including 27 percent who strongly favor it.”

Is the nuclear comeback trail being paved by misinformation and false desperation? Or, is it a factor of politics and money? Energy usage is going down and conservation may be the new byword, but is it enough to deflect the hunger for nuclear?

“Just turn the lights off,” McCandless says. “It’s nice to be an environmentalist when you’re eating food out of a fridge and watching a plasma-screen TV.”

Other articles of interest

Brain Chip May Help the Blind See

The Science of 9/11: What really brought down the towers?

The Molecular Condom 2.0

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses and Citizen Revolt columns. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

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