Don't dismiss nuclear risks

The Baltimore Sun

With the recent settlement between the state of Maryland and Constellation Energy Group, the power company is once again championing Calvert Cliffs as the site of a new nuclear power plant. This is not a cause for celebration.

On July 13, Constellation submitted the first new application to build a nuclear power plant in the U.S. since Three Mile Island. But the company threatened to go elsewhere if Maryland lawmakers re-established state regulatory control on new power plants.

Fear of a growing energy shortage is leading to calls for more nuclear power plants. What many people are forgetting is that nuclear power is an expensive and risky investment, and there would be little interest in such projects without federal subsidies and incentives, including liability insurance, risk insurance for delays, production tax credits and loan guarantees totaling billions of dollars. In Florida, two proposed new reactors may cost $24 billion, with ratepayers expected to pay during construction. With wind power already more economical than nuclear power, and solar power soon to be, one critic predicts nuclear power plants will be "economically obsolete before they are built."

Nuclear power cannot be brought online on the scale and time frame needed to replace coal. In 2007, 12 of 32 nuclear reactors under construction worldwide had been so for more than 20 years. Moody's estimated that no more than two new nuclear power plants will come online by 2015. In addition to delays in finding suitable sites, dealing with community objections and getting permits, there is now a three-year backup in obtaining the core reactor vessel, which is forged by a single company in Japan.

There is no solution to the problem of nuclear waste, currently totaling 50,000 metric tons. Despite 20 years of study and a $9 billion expense, the repository site at Yucca Mountain is not close to having a permit. Were it to open, it would be full by 2012.

Pro-nuclear advocates tend to ignore the fact that nuclear power is the only energy source that carries the risk of radioactive contamination. This unique safety concern is exacerbated by a degraded safety culture shared by plant owners and by a Nuclear Regulatory Commission that took too long to correct a dangerous erosion problem, which allowed container vessels to leak. The NRC has failed to resolve design flaws in sump pumps at Calvert Cliffs and other plants at risk of clogging in an accident. Moreover, the NRC's inspector general has criticized the agency for failing to document criteria for plant recertification.

A British report last year outlined the growing risk of terrorist action against nuclear power plants. Whether by accident or terrorist event, a meltdown would be catastrophic. The Department of Energy in 1982 estimated that for each reactor at Calvert Cliffs, a meltdown would likely result in 5,600 fatalities, 15,000 peak injuries and 23,000 cancer deaths. It stands to reason that those figures would be greater now, given the growth in population and development of Southern Maryland.

Of course, nuclear power also increases the risk of arms proliferation. The fuels used by the reactors are the fissile materials needed to make nuclear bombs. Uranium enrichment increases the concentration of U-235 from 0.7 percent, as it exists in nature, to 3 percent (low enriched uranium, or LEU), which is used for fuel. Further enrichment to 90 percent (highly enriched uranium, or HEU) is necessary to make bombs like the one detonated over Hiroshima.

Iran was charged with violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for enriching uranium in secret. (The treaty permits nonnuclear nations to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear energy programs if done transparently.) The same technology is used for production of LEU and HEU, which underscores the contradiction of trying to stop nuclear weapons proliferation at the same time as promoting nuclear energy.

Plutonium is obtained by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. It is easier to steal because it emits no self-protecting gamma rays, unlike unseparated spent fuel, which is lethal at one meter even 50 years after production. The theft of just a few kilograms is all that is required to produce a bomb like the one detonated over Nagasaki. Currently, there is enough reprocessed plutonium from civilian nuclear power plants worldwide to make 60,000 nuclear bombs. The proliferation risk is staggering, and as nuclear power expands, so does access to weapons-usable material such as enriched uranium and reprocessed plutonium.

Global warming is a worldwide crisis. Coal-fired power plants are a major producer of CO(-2), and we must find a way to replace them - but not with dangerous nuclear power. As in medicine, when a treatment is associated with rare but serious complications, we choose safer alternatives. Increased energy efficiency, conservation, solar and wind power are the safer alternatives.

Dr. Gwen DuBois, an internist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, is a member of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her e-mail is

Dr. Gwen DuBois, whose article "Don't dismiss nuclear risks" appeared on Friday's Commentary page, was misidentified in the article. She is an internist at Sinai Hospital and an instructor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The Sun regrets the error.
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