No to nuclear power

ST. LOUIS — It has been more than 30 years since the last nuclear power plant was licensed for construction in the United States. Environmental and cost concerns have held the nuclear lobby in check, but public awareness of climate change from burning of fossil fuels has provided an excuse to consider nuclear as an alternative energy source. Now Ameren — the largest electric utility in Missouri and the second largest electricity provider in Illinois — is lobbying for permission to build a second nuclear energy plant near Fulton, Mo., alongside its first nuclear facility.

However, in 1976 by an overwhelming majority, Missouri voters passed a law that utility customers should not have to pay for new plant 'construction work in progress' (CWIP). Ameren is campaigning vigorously for the Missouri Legislature to overturn this law. So far, the bill to do so, SB 228, has passed a Senate committee with a favorable recommendation and will be presented to the full Senate today.

It is estimated that the cost will be $9 billion (ignoring cost overruns) and that the plant will take 10 years to build. Consumer rates would increase 29 percent to 40 percent during this period before a single watt of energy is delivered, according to the Missouri Public Counsel's office.

SB 228 would allow any electric company that builds a new power plant to get automatic rate increases every three months without time to have hearings to justify those increases, weakening the traditional oversight role of the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC). Mistakes in the construction of such a complex facility would cause increased costs to be passed on to the customers, and if the project were abandoned, all the costs to that point. More than half of previously proposed nuclear plants have been scrapped before completion.

As in other important issues, for example, embryonic stem cell research, a broad coalition has emerged. In this case, consumers and industries opposing higher rates, environmental groups, and lead editorials in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, are campaigning to defeat SB 228 with TV ads, recorded telephone messages, and an extended open teleconference with over 10,000 participants on April 2 following the committee vote.

While the emphasis of the coalition revolves around the injustice of charging consumers for construction of a company's facility (as well as ignoring the democratic vote of the people), a more long-term and important issue concerns the environmental impact of using nuclear fission to boil water to drive turbines.

The inherent danger of a nuclear accident is recognized by the Price-Anderson Act, which forces taxpayers (not the company) to be responsible for any major accident. Even if no accidents occur, or if plutonium-239 (half-life of 24,110 years), created in fast neutron reactors, is not lost or stolen to make nuclear weapons, there is still no known procedure to eliminate the high-level radioactive waste.

More than 95 percent of the waste products are cesium-137 and strontium-90, which have half-lives (lose 50 percent) of about 30 years. They are not the problem. The 'transuranics' (isotopes of uranium and plutonium as well as curium-245) have half-lives of thousands of years. So far, the much touted 'recycling' requires purification of the transuranics and is very inefficient and difficult and has only been accomplished on a small laboratory scale. The planet is accumulating these highly lethal products with no place to put them.

About half the U.S. nuclear waste is at Hanford, Wash., in nuclear 'sludge' acquired from our nuclear weapons program. The other half is from our 103 nuclear power plants. The Hanford waste is beginning to leak into the Columbia River.

As an aside, the unknown cost of waste disposal by currently unknown means is never considered when calculating dollar costs.

But the real costs cannot be measured in dollars. We are saddling future generations, hoping that future technology can solve the problem that has not been solved during the last 60 or so years.

There are alternatives to meet the energy crisis. In 2005, Missouri used 13 percent more electricity per person than the national average and twice as much as California, which has led the nation in energy efficiency. Other nations are making rapid progress with renewable energy sources. Denmark now gets about 25 percent of its electricity from wind, and Spain, Germany, China and others are making good progress trapping solar energy.

Using nuclear fission to boil water is not only absurd — it could be the greatest folly of all time.

----- David Kennell (kennell @ borcim.wustl.edu) is professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.