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KRC Opposes Senate Amendment Lifting Ban On New Nuclear Power Plants In Kentucky  Posted: March 10, 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013

To: House Majority Leadership and Staff

From: Tom FitzGerald, Director

I’m writing to ask that you refuse to concur with Senate Floor Amendments 1 and 2 to House Bill 370, which would eliminate the current moratorium on approval of new nuclear power plants until a national waste disposal strategy is in place.

You will recall that, during the 2012 session, I assisted in negotiating a narrow exemption to the moratorium in order to allow the Paducah community to bid on DOE proposals to fund development of small, next-generation modular nuclear plants to assist in conversion of coal to gas.

This amendment would go much further, allowing construction of nuclear plants that are not of advanced, low-waste design, with no strategy for disposing of the spent fuel and other nuclear wastes.


Before addressing the specific issue of a long-term waste management strategy, which current law requires and this bill would not, it is important to note that the current prohibition is not the obstacle that the nuclear industry must overcome to have any rule in Kentucky’s energy future. There are four major obstacles, and each of them will remain whether this bill passes or not, so that any hope that this bill would create jobs or economic opportunity in the Commonwealth through investment by electric utilities in new nuclear plant construction is unrealistic.


The first issue that impedes any new construction of nuclear power plants using fission to heat water to drive turbines, is that private investors are wary of investments in new plants because of the runaway capital construction costs. There have been no new plants ordered since 1974 because of the flight of investors due to staggering overruns in cost, which have averaged over 200%.

In 2009, the Ontario Power Authority came up with a novel way to deal with these cost overruns, by requesting bids for two new nuclear plants that would not allow for cost overruns. The resulting winning bid would have provided power at 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, nearly 4 times the blended average price for electricity in the Commonwealth. With three major industries – steel, aluminum, and automobile – that are very intensive users of electricity whose energy costs are very price sensitive, such rate increases would likely drive those industries from the Commonwealth. The Ontario Power Authority cancelled its nuclear plans and is focusing on meeting future power needs through a mix of renewables.

One observer has noted that the nuclear industry has and continues to suffer from an “incurable attack of market forces.” Forbes called nuclear investment experience “the largest managerial disaster in business history.” Those states whose utilities invested in nuclear power generation have significantly higher costs for electricity, and what was naively billed as “too cheap to meter” became for many utilities and their customers, too expensive to afford.


The second obstacle is that of safety and security. The indefinite dry cask or pool storage of spent fuels at reactors, which would be allowed under this bill, creates a potential threat from terrorism or mismanagement of the wastes. According to the National Academy of Sciences, none of the reactors and storage facilities could withstand an airplane attack, and such a collision could cause fatalities as far as 500 miles away and ten times the destruction caused by the Chernobyl incident.


The third is a concern regarding proliferation and weaponization of plutonium.


The last significant obstacle is that of waste disposal. Each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle generates wastes that must be managed – mining, milling, conversion to gas, gaseous diffusion in order to upgrade (enrich) the uranium so that it is capable of sustained nuclear reaction, fabrication of the pellets for fuel, reprocessing spent fuel, storage, transportation and disposal. There is currently no disposal strategy since the Obama Administration has concluded that the Yucca Mountain project will not be pursued further at this time, and the federal government is funding the interim storage and paying significant judgments for partially breaching its contract to begin disposal of the spent fuel from civilian nuclear power plants in 1998.

Alvin Weinberg, former head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a supporter of nuclear power and often known as the father of the nuclear power industry, had this observation in an article in Science magazine in 1972:

“We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer -- in the catalytic nuclear burner (breeder reactor) -- an inexhaustible source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting. . . .
But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to. In a way, all of this was anticipated during the old debates over nuclear weapons. . . . . In a sense, we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war . . . It seems to me … that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration.”

Weinberg, Alvin; "Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy", Science, 7 July 1972, p. 33.

Mr. Weinberg was referring to the necessity to securely manage the spent fuels and other radioactive material for hundreds of thousands of years.

It is certainly not too much to ask the nuclear power industry and Department of Energy, before we embark on the development of any new nuclear power plants in the Commonwealth, to demonstrate that vigilance and longevity of a strategy for permanent disposal of the wastes is in place, and neither has to date been demonstrated. The indefinite storage of high-level wastes at nuclear plants in pools and dry cask storage presents significant homeland security concerns and is not a suitable surrogate for secure disposal of wastes that will pose potential human and ecological risks for thousands of years. It is ironic that while Kentucky law requires each county to have in place a plan for disposal of garbage, this bill would remove the requirement for electric utilities wishing to build a new nuclear power plant in the Commonwealth to have in place a disposal strategy for high-level radioactive waste, and allow generation and indefinite on-site accumulation and storage of new radioactive wastes. This bill would not begin a conversation; instead it would conclude a conversation about responsibility in planning for high-level radioactive waste needs.

It is sobering to visit the Department of Energy webpage of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management and to read what DOE calls the “monumental task of warning future generations.” The “monumental challenge is to address how warnings can be coherently conveyed for thousands of years into the future when human society and language could change radically.” Modern English dates to the “great vowel shift” in the early 1600’s, and no modern reader can easily recognize or understand Middle English as it existed prior to that time. The longer-lived radionuclides that would need to be managed to prevent exposure have half-lives of 24,000 years, and the wastes will need to be securely managed for hundreds of thousands of years.

For each and all of these reasons, I request that you refuse to concur with the Senate amendments 1 and 2 to HB 370, and send the bill back to the Senate with a request that they recede in order to allow final passage of HB 370, which is a very positive step for capitalizing the costs of industrial and commercial energy efficiency.

Thank you.

Tom FitzGerald
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