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News Section: Opinion

Nuclear Power Deal is a Big Step in the Wrong Direction

Published Thursday, November 29, 2012 12:10 am

This week, the state Public Service Commission approved nearly $300 million in rate increases that will essentially force Floridians to pre-fund the future costs of upgrading nuclear power facilities, and even pay for future ones that might be built. The decision came on the heels of more bad news from climate scientists on the rapid pace of climate change, none of which altered the United States' position regarding how little it is willing to contribute toward solving the great challenge of our time. The events read as a pretty clear sign that it's business as usual here in America. Namely: if the solution to a problem doesn't benefit a special interest, then that problem doesn't exist.

Florida's two largest electric utilities gained approval on Monday to charge customers $294 million in 2012, ostensibly to offset future costs of nuclear energy. The five-member Public Service Commission unanimously approved rate requests from Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Florida. FPL's $151 million will amount to 51 cents less than this year's "nuclear cost recovery charge," but Progress' $143 million will increase the current charge by $1.93 for a 1,000-kilowatt hour customer, to $4.79 per month.

Nuclear plants are the only utility that get to pass on costs to customers before facilities are operational. Because utilities are (and I would argue must be) a regulated industry, such investments are by nature a tax on everyone who uses electricity, which is to say everyone. Taxes are the most effective way to encourage or discourage behavior, and the nuclear industry is clearly being incentivized in this fashion. That seems like a misguided approach. It has never been more clear that the world must move at a breakneck pace toward alternative energy sources that are viable in the long term. Proponents of nuclear argue that the low carbon output of a properly functioning plant make it a suitable fuel for our climate challenged future, but a closer look reveals such logic to be deeply flawed.

As TBT environmental reporter John Rehill explained in an excellent series on the true cost of nuclear energy, the root-to-fruit carbon footprint of nuclear power is massive. From the production of unthinkable amounts of concrete required to construct the plant, to the uranium mining and production, tens of thousands of CO2-consuming acres are often deforested before a plant is even constructed. In addition to carbon concerns, there's the age-old problem of dealing with an incredibly hazardous byproduct. On average, each plant produces 30 tons of high-level radioactive waste annually. With a half-life of thousands of years, the problem of storing the spent fuel rods is a serious one that we pass on to future generations in an expense that is not factored into the proposed cost of the plant.  

Then of course there's the feasibility of all those costs once added up. Nuclear is marketed as a cheap energy, but when one studies the massive subsidies that exist on all levels of these public/private partnerships (which are best explained as public risk/private profit), such is clearly not the case. As Rehill noted, the only thing green about nuclear energy is the money bilked off the public and dispersed to the special interests. Surprisingly, it's often the same free market "capitalists" who lambast the government for trying to "pick winners and losers in the marketplace" who are so hot on expanding nuclear energy. If a technology cannot stand on its own, they say, it needs to get out of the way. Were we to apply that logic to nuclear energy, clearly it would have never gotten off the ground in the first place.

Here in Florida, there is also the increased chance of catastrophes like the one that still plagues Japan after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, in which the most catastrophic meltdown since the infamous Chernobyl disaster occurred following an earthquake and tsunami. Considering our state's location within hurricane alley, it's a wonder the idea of nuclear power in the sunshine state ever got a second look.

This week, we learned that sea levels are rising even faster than models have predicted and that a block of sea ice larger than the U.S. melted this year. A report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was released on Tuesday, shows that levels have risen faster than their models had been projecting as recently as 2007. Yet there is a bill sitting on the President's desk called the "European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act," that would essentially empower U.S. airlines to ignore the EU's attempt to cost-effectively reduce carbon emissions from airplanes using European airports. The U.S. has also made it clear while the world gather in Doha, Qatar this week for the U.N. climate talks, that is has no intent to increase its already modest efforts to offset carbon emissions.

Even after a frankenstorm like Sandy hit the United States just weeks before a presidential election, climate change remained a non-issue in the campaigns. Over and over, vague nods to the challenge of living in a world of increasingly-frequent extreme weather are hedged by assertions that efforts to combat global warming must in no way jeopardize our economic recovery. Oh, the vanity of mankind – placing what is essentially a problem of numbers on a computer screen relating to debts in fiat currencies and their attached "assets" onto a plane 30,000 feet above the physical environment we must inhabit – all because the solutions to one contradict the fruits of the other. Alas, take in the irony now, for when it's finally time to pay the real piper, we'll be far too busy trying to keep our head above water to place our tongues in our cheeks. 

see also:

What You Need to Know About the So-Called Fiscal Cliff

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The amounts of concrete required in nuclear power plant construction are not actually "unthinkable". They can be both thought about, and calculated quite accurately, although it is understandable that Maley might hope to prevent people from trying, because the results are not as he suggests.
In fact, if a nuclear power plant were to send all its electricity to an electric furnace that was making clinker, it would thus shoulder the lion's share of the energy requirement in making concrete. (Usually clinker is made in gas-fired kilns, and using electricity instead is a waste of electricity, but as we shall see, it works out pretty well even so.)
How fast would it repay the concrete debt, so to speak, remaining after its construction? Within two weeks.
At P. L. Denholm and G. L. Kulcinski say concrete represents a 1.4-GJ/tonne energy investment. Clinker takes 4.69 GJ/tonne, so that makes sense if concrete is 30 percent clinker by mass.
A 1-GW power station that for 30 years at 80 percent does nothing but power a clinker kiln can therefore support the making of 540 MILLION tonnes of concrete in that time. It contains, however, only a few hundred thousand tonnes.
Isn't it interesting how natural gas promoters try to suggest that when a dollar's worth of uranium replaces $10-$20 worth of natural gas, there is somehow a whole lot of fossil fuel use implicit in that. Of course, they don't expect you to know about how cheap uranium is, or you'd see right through their idiocy.
Posted by Graham R. L. Cowan on December 3, 2012

Hello Dennis, I truly know what u mean about the power companies here and no doubt elsewhere ripping us off, at every turn, but what the H can we do. My son lives in Virginia and has a 2300 sq ft home, three adults and two children, ac running constantly, elec. heat running the other half, washer dryer going every other day, power flying through the house. His bill,,150 a month or less. We two of us, have an 1600 sq ft house i built in 89, we scrimp and sweat sometimes and freeze sometimes and our low bill is 100 and our high is on average 240. Somethings not just right, right. Live in Tampa so have TECO but still. thanks Dennis, good story.
Posted by peter ford on December 2, 2012

I read a lot of critisim bot no positive alternative. Oil? Flodida won't allow oil drilling off shore (except for the Chinese). Coal? No, coal mines in Florida are not a good idea. Solendra? Oh, that's right they went out of business and took 1/2 billion with them. Natural Gas? The only natural gas seems to be above ground. Wind farms? I wonder how they would make out in a hurricane. Solar Farms? See wind farms above.
Posted by Lee McCoy on November 29, 2012

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