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Don't Jump to Conclusions About Nuclear Reactors: Look at the Facts and Say No

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The terrible pictures and continuing news coverage coming from Japan since the devastating earthquake and tsunami almost three weeks ago have reminded many Americans about the dangers of nuclear reactors.

Today, more and more Americans are realizing that nuclear power should not have a part to play in the United States' energy future. Nuclear reactors are neither safe nor clean, and they are so economically risky that Wall Street refuses to finance them, forcing the risk onto American taxpayers. It is time to call for an end to this unsafe, poorly regulated and prohibitively expensive technology.

Nuclear proponents' claims that the industry is clean and safe miss the mark. It takes tons of fossil fuels to mine and transport uranium, leading to about 250,000 tons of CO2 each year during a 1,250 MW plant's lifetime. And, studies show that uranium miners in the American Southwest were exposed to radon 220, a radioactive gas, and as many as one in five developed lung cancer. A current proposal by a private company, Virginia Uranium, to mine in Pittsylvania County in southeast Virginia, overturning the Commonwealth's 30-year ban on uranium mining, has drawn opposition from residents downstream who rely on the Roanoke River Basin for drinking water.

It does not take a natural disaster to cause a nuclear crisis, and the United States is no stranger to these dangers. Three Mile Island is only the most famous example. According to a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in 2010 alone, mechanical, electrical and human errors caused "near-misses" at reactors in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. That list only includes events that caused plants to shut down, not "routine" safety concerns like the aging drain pipes at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant that were leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed Vermont Yankee to continue operating for two weeks while workers searched for the source of the leak.

Possibly even more dangerous than the threats posed by reactors, there is still no way to safely dispose of spent fuel and other nuclear waste, which can remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. In an LA Times op-ed last week, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for National Security and the Environment Robert Alvarez summarized a report he cowrote in 2003, which concluded that a fire in a spent fuel pool could do more damage than the Chernobyl disaster, potentially even leaving an area about half the size of New Jersey permanently uninhabitable. Yet, the NRC tried to ignore the report, and spent fuel pools are still spread across the country, including at Indian Point, just 38 miles from New York City. Although reports are shaky, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Congress that he believed there was no water in one of the spent fuel pools at Fukushima, and it is possible that there have been fires in one or more of the pools there in the past weeks, greatly increasing the possibility that there will be major long-term health effects from the damaged reactor.

Transparency issues haunt the industry and its regulators. In 2007, candidate Obama told a New Hampshire newspaper editorial board that the NRC had "become captive of the industries that it regulates." The cozy relationship can be clearly seen in the license renewal of the Vermont Yankee plant. Despite the tritium leaks and an overwhelming vote in the Vermont State Senate to close the plant, the NRC announced that it would renew Vermont Yankee's operating license for twenty additional years on March 10 -- the day before the earthquake in Japan. The NRC immediately backed off that decision, but then on March 25, just days after announcing a 90-day review of all nuclear plants, it confirmed the license renewal. It's hard to believe that the NRC will seriously review any nuclear plant when it is so willing to rubber stamp a leaking relic like Vermont Yankee.

The only safe nuclear reactor for our planet is 93 million miles away: the sun. Though, however clear and real the safety concerns are here in the U.S. and in Japan, the massive costs and economic risks of new reactor construction are just as daunting.

Wall Street investors, the same financial daredevils who invested so heavily in subprime mortgages, balk at the risks of nuclear reactor construction. Reactors cost billions of dollars and require many years to build, so with the nuclear industry's track record of defaulting on loans, the private sector sees nuclear construction as an unwise investment. As former NRC member Peter Bradford explained, trying to use nuclear power to meet America's energy needs is like using "caviar to fight world hunger." In recent years, trying to make nuclear construction viable in the United States, the federal government has stepped in to fill the financing gap. Subsidies include accident insurance, a production tax credit, accelerated depreciation, and the Title XVII bailout guarantee program, which could provide billions of dollars in bailouts to the riskiest projects.

Friends of the Earth has created a comprehensive factsheet detailing the risks of these preemptive bailouts. In 2007, Michael J. Wallace, then executive vice president of Constellation Energy, told the New York Times that "Without loan guarantees we will not build nuclear power plants." The guarantees work like a parent co-signing on a teenager's first credit card. Like teenagers, companies that build nuclear reactors are terrifyingly likely to default on their loans. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2003 that the risk of default on a nuclear construction loan guarantee is "very high -- well above 50 percent." The Department of Energy charges a nominal fee which is supposed to cover potential losses, but because it makes the federal program more expensive than private sector loans, DOE ends up covering only projects that are too risky to receive private financing. It is not surprising that the Congressional Research Service expects the taxpayers to "bear most of the risk, facing potentially large losses."

A month before the earthquake in Japan, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report on nuclear subsidies, and found that in some cases, "buying power on the open market and giving it away for free would have been less costly than subsidizing the construction and operation of nuclear power plants." The UCS report and Friends of the Earth's own Green Scissors report advocate for doing away with nuclear subsidies entirely.

In the wake of Japan's nuclear crisis, those financial risks became even clearer. Wall Street analysts have downgraded nuclear power companies, increasing the chances that they will need U.S. taxpayers to finance future projects if new reactors are built. Economic considerations alone are enough reason to stop subsidies for new reactors, but with safety and transparency concerns, it is clear that the time has come to end nuclear power in the United States.

I hope you will join me in taking action to phase out nuclear power today.

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