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Joseph Romm

Joseph Romm

Posted: July 31, 2008 01:26 PM

McCain and the Nukes of Hazard


homer_simpson_nnuclear_power_plant.jpgJust when you thought it was safe to build 45 new nuclear plants by 2030 as John McCain wants, comes this word from France's Independent Commission on Research and Information on Radiocactivity (CRIIRAD):

"In less than 15 days, the CRIIRAD has been informed of four malfunctions in four nuclear plants, leading to the accidental contamination of 126 workers," CRIIRAD head Corinne Castanier told Reuters in an interview....

But the conservative francophile [how's that for an oxymoron?] said last year
"If France can produce 80% of its electricity with nuclear power, why can't we?"

McCain seems to forget we are a much, much larger country than France. Heck, we already have more nuclear reactors than they do. To achieve McCain's goal, we'd need 500 to 700+ new nuclear reactors plus 5 to 7 Yucca mountains, at a cost of some $4 trillion. Not to mention the soaring electricity bills Americans would have to suffer through, with electricity from new nukes projected at some $0.15 a kilowatt hour -- some 50% higher than current national rates -- not even counting transmission (or reprocessing).

The only thing scarier than the radioactivity hazard of nuclear power is the economic hazard, (see "Nuclear power, Part 2: The price is not right" and "The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power").

homer_polonium.jpgBut wait, you say, where in fact will McCain store all of his radioactive waste -- assuming he doesn't plan to ask plant workers to toss it out the car window? Don't worry, yesterday he reiterated his desire to be like the French and reprocess, reprocess, reprocess:


But the Arizona senator repeated that Yucca Mountain should be approved only if it can meet all environmental requirements. And the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, as is now done in France, must be part of the equation, he said.

Let's put aside the 10% to 20% price increase reprocessing would add to the price of nuclear power -- 1.5 cents to 3 cents per kilowatt hour on top of the 15 cents projected for new nukes.

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel -- extracting the plutonium and running it in special reactor -- is just a bad idea, as detailed in the recent Scientific American, "Nuclear Fuel Recycling: More Trouble Than It's Worth" by former Clinton science adviser and Princeton nuclear physicist Frank N. von Hippel. Von Hippel is one of the country's top experts on the subject, and he explains the three big flaws of reprocessing:


  1. "Recycling plutonium reduces the waste problem only minimally";

  2. "Extraction and processing cost much more than the new fuel is worth"; and

  3. Separated plutonium can be used to make nuclear bombs if it gets into the wrong hands, which means that a lot of effort has to be expended to "keep it secure until it is once more a part of spent fuel."


But forget the facts -- who doesn't want to be like the French when it comes to nuclear power? Other than, maybe, the French nuclear workers:
On Wednesday alone, some 100 staff at the nuclear power plant of Tricastin in southeastern France were contaminated with low doses of radiation.


The incident followed another on July 7 at the same site, which shook public confidence in the safety of France's nuclear industry...

The French nuclear safety body, ASN, said that in 2007, less than a 100 nuclear workers had been contaminated by radiation in France, where 80 percent of power is produced by atomic energy.


Oh, well, then, as long as its under a 100 nuclear workers contaminated, why should anybody care?