(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — Park City, Utah — Is nuclear power the answer to global warming? Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. doesn’t think so. In this interview with EnviroNews editor-in-chief Emerson Urry, the well-known environmental activist explains his position on the contentious issue.
“I’m all for nuke if they can ever make it economic, but it costs 15 times the amount of solar, so why would you ever do it?” Kennedy asked. “Plus, it’s unsafe.”
There’s disagreement within the environmental community about whether nuclear power can be the carbon-free alternative to fossil fuels. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club oppose it. The Environmental Defense Fund says nuclear power plants are “a prudent step and good for the environment.” Dr. James Hansen, the legendary and outspoken climate scientist, argues in favor of nuclear as part of the solution to climate change.
“I love James Hansen, but he is wrong on this issue; he’s been wrong on nuke for a while,” Kennedy responded when asked. “He doesn’t understand the cost advantage that solar and wind now have over the incumbents, including nukes.”
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there are 449 nuclear power reactors currently operating in 30 countries, with 60 more under construction. In the U.S., 99 reactors produced 805.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electric power in 2016. The new Watts Bar 2 unit came online last year in Tennessee – a project of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a corporation owned by the federal government. The reactor 2 unit at that plant is already in shutdown due to equipment failures.
Kennedy also questions the industry’s financial viability. “If you remove the subsidies from nuclear power there’s not a single utility in the world who would build a nuclear power plant,” he said.
According to a 2011 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past fifty years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away.”
Most of these subsidies work by shifting financial and operational risk from private industry to ratepayers and taxpayers. Utility consumers are often asked to pay rate surcharges before a nuclear power plant even comes online, and pay a federally mandated fee that goes to nuclear waste disposal. Federal loan guarantees enable costly nuclear power plant construction and a special tax depreciation allowance is provided for uranium mining.
The General Mining Act of 1872 allows anyone to extract hardrock minerals from federal lands, including the uranium needed for nuclear plants, without having to pay a royalty to the U.S. Government. That includes foreign corporations. Cameco, a Canadian company, is the largest uranium mining enterprise in the U.S. according to the World Nuclear Association. Energy Fuels Inc., also a Canadian company, with Korea Electric Power Co. (KEPCO) holding a 9.6 percent interest, is the second largest.
Nuclear power comes with other hidden and potentially explosive costs. Japan has estimated the costs related to the 2011 Fukushima disaster at $188 billion, while Belarus has tabbed the Chernobyl costs at $235 billion. But private insurers will only write policies to cover up to $450 million per reactor, which would likely be far short of the costs of a major nuclear accident.
The Price-Anderson Act puts American taxpayers on the line for costs of a nuclear mishap exceeding the amount insurers will pay. Although the government can require reactor companies to pay into a fund, they are not assessed until after an accident occurs. That’s like asking automobile drivers to pay insurance only after somebody rear-ends another car. And that fund is capped at $12.6 billion. If costs exceed the covered amounts, it would require an act of Congress to provide additional monies.
“In order to build a nuclear power plant in this country, Congress had to pass the Price-Anderson Act during a sleazy legislative maneuver in the middle of the night in order to waive liability for the entire nuclear industry,” Kennedy explained.
The costs for a nuclear reactor don’t end when it gets decommissioned or when the operator replenishes its spent fuel rods. Politico estimates that it will cost taxpayers at least $38 billion and perhaps as much as $65 billion just to deal with existing waste from current or previously closed nuclear plants.
“That’s just another subsidy to the nuclear industry,” said Kennedy. “We have to store the stuff at taxpayer expense. You have to store that waste for the next 30,000 years, which is five times the length of recorded human history.”
Even with subsidies, the economics of the industry are troubling. Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy on March 29, 2017, drowning in debt from two nuclear power plants it was building in the U.S. Its parent company, Toshiba, said it would need to absorb losses up to $10 billion. It’s doubtful either facility will be completed. Yet, Georgia Power customers are still paying a surcharge on their electric bill, typically amounting to $100 a year, to finance construction of one of the two plants. In South Carolina, where the other plant is to be built, ratepayers could be on the hook for possible abandonment costs.
“It’s a ridiculous industry,” said Kennedy. “There’s no justification for it and no need for it. Why would you make nuclear power when you can have the same amount of solar power that’s clean and safe for 1/15th the cost?”
WATCH OTHER SEGMENTS FROM THE ENVIRONEWS EXCLUSIVE WITH ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR.