After thirty years, the nuclear power industry is making a come back. What caused the hiatus and why does the thought of new nuclear reactors frighten so many people? Well, there’s Vogtle’s cost overruns and the nightmares from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant’s cost overruns have already been examined. Going from $660 million to $8.87 billion for half of the planned power plant caused a lot of nuclear proponents to blanch and step back. Have these issues been resolved? Can investors in nuclear energy (especially customers and taxpayers) expect the quoted costs to be the actual cost give or take ten percent? Well, no.
In a BBC World Service Report on the apparent American nuclear renaissance, Mark Cooper from the University of Vermont had this to say, “One or two reactors is not a renaissance.The cost will prevent from them from being built.”
Back in November the "economic downside of nuclear energy" was reviewed. In that article it was pointed out that no nuclear reactors started in the last ten years were up and running and two of the plants currently under construction in France and Finland were experiencing problems. Over 3,000 problems have been found at the Finnish construction site causing delays and huge cost overruns. The French nuclear reactor construction has encountered similar problems also running up large cost overruns and causing lengthy delays.
No one wants a nuclear power plant built with substandard materials, incompetent labor, or run with untrained staff. Unfortunately, examples of what can happen exist. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are the largest examples of what can go wrong.
Dickinson College has a website devoted to the Three Mile Island accident. It includes photos, media coverage and government documents and interviews surrounding the disaster. In a nutshell, “Unit 2 of Metropolitan Edison Company’s nuclear generating plant at Three Mile Island (TMI)” had a meltdown on March 28th 1979. The meltdown was attributed to equipment failure and operator failure. The core was more damaged than originally thought.
Radiation was leaked into the air and radioactive water was flushed into the nearby river. Pregnant women and children were the first to evacuate, followed by 80,000 to 200,000 people who voluntarily evacuated. Evacuees were allowed to return less than ten days after the meltdown. The real kicker was that the returning evacuees were going to be paying energy bills to pay for an alternate source of electricity and cleanup of the reactor.
Chernobyl’s meltdown in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986 was more dramatic and more damaging. The cause of the meltdown was the same, faulty equipment and human error, but the results were horrendous. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located in the Ukraine, released the destructive potential of 100 atom bombs into the atmosphere. Three countries, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were affected by the immediate after effects of the meltdown.
Villages, cities and rural areas were completely evacuated. For example, the entire town of Pripyat, three kilometers (almost two miles) away was home to about 50,000 people. The entire town was evacuated within days of the disaster and the town and surrounding area remains a ghost town. Most of the areas affected across all three countries will not be habitable for at least 50 years if not longer.
Thirty one people out of the 600 plant personnel and firefighters called to the scene, died within 3 months of the accident. Forty seven of the 800,000 liquidators called in died between 1986 and 2005. Thyroid cancer in children and adolescents in affected areas dramatically increased. Other forms of cancer and other diseases have been seen in higher amounts in the populations affected.
So what. Both of those disasters occurred over 23 years ago. What about nuclear reactors in use today? Well, Unit 1 at the Cook Nuclear Power Plant was damaged in September of 2008, was going back online last month after extensive repairs. More repairs are expected in 2011.
According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), March 20, 1990, Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant experienced an emergency caused by equipment failure and human error (hmmm, there seems to be a theme here), that was prevented from becoming a disaster by the swift actions of the plant operators. Since then better safety protocols, procedures, and equipment have been installed. Since two new reactors are expected to be built at Vogtle, the previous incident should allow improvements to be built in from the beginning.
Scary disasters, frightening incidents and bad economics combine to form a frightening image of the nuclear energy industry. However, since the last reactors were built, new designs and scientific updates could greatly diminish the dangers and high costs associated with nuclear energy so far.
Of course we won’t know until the new reactors are built and online.
Tomorrow’s article will look at what happens with spent fuel rods.