Technological Disaster

The ad came over the Buffalo television station touting a nuclear plant called Nine Mile Pt. 2, which is nearing completion. The message was upbeat and false. Thoughindirectly paid for by the utility’s consumers, the ad managed to ignore some facts about this monument to technological disaster.

First, the Nine Mile Pt. 2 nuclear plant has experienced staggering cost overruns. The original company estimate in the early 1970s for the 1,080-megawatt plant was $350 million. True, there has been inflation since. But that can scarcely account for Niagara Mohawk Power Co.’s present estimate of $3.7 billion. Two consultant studies put the completion cost at $5.6 billion.

But the ad says that this plant will save many millions of dollars otherwise spent for oil. The ad lies. Oil will not fuel any more New York State electric utility plants. The alternatives will be conservation, amply available hydropower from Canada or coal and, later, various forms of solar. The cost overruns reflect bungling management, serious engineering problems on the site and difficulties with the utilities’ nuclear technology suppliers.

Nine Mile Pt. 2 (Pt. 1 is out of operation for a year because of defects) is not an isolated instance. The nuclear power industry is crumbling economically, technically and in the loss of public confidence. The safety risks are real and have not been whiffed away by Madison Avenue slogans. Any other industry would have gotten out of the business years ago–there has not been a firm order for a single nuclear plant in the United States for more than five years. But the atomic power companies have one prop going for them. Ronald Reagan has increased their welfare bailout budget and wants Congress to pour several hundred more millions of dollars into this disintegrating industry. The president, who verbally is against waste, deficits and higher taxes, nonetheless wants you the taxpayer to pay for the nuclear industry’s billions of dollars of blunders and mismanagement.

What is embarrassing the nuclear industry is not just that after more than $150 billion of taxpayer and corporate investment, only 11 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from the atom. It is not just that existing nuclear plants are shutting down for longer periods to be repaired. It is that firewood–that’s right, firewood–is contributing considerably more energy to our country than are the entire 72 nuclear plants licensed for business. Firewood passed nuclear in 1980 and the gap is widening for 1982.

Economist Les Brown of Worldwatch Institute projects that the peak contribution of nuclear power will come in the early 1990s (due to completion of three or four dozen plants under construction) and thereafter decline. His prediction may be too optimistic, because numerous and serious engineering-failure problems are plaguing many plants after only a few years of operation.

One such widespread failure involves steam generator tube leaks, which afflict 40 of the 47 pressurized-water reactors in the United States. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) documents call the problem “virtually impossible” to fix without huge replacement costs. The NRC has classified these tube leaks as an “unresolved safety issue” since 1977.

Steam generators are an important part of a plant’s safety system since they cool the reactor by removing the intense heat from the atomic core.

Richard Udell, author of a forthcoming report on steam generator tube leaks, summarizes the consequences related to these failures, which have been occurring around the country and which may reach epidemic proportions during this decade. They are: “The enormous costs of steam generator repairs and replacement power (that the utilities want to charge consumers for); the occupational radiation dangers to both temporary and permanent plant workers; the safety problems related to tube leaks and the inability of industry to produce an adequate design.”

Consumers have a clear choice: Either they will receive bigger bills or they will absorb more facts around which to organize and stop the growing damage to their budget and health. That’s what people are doing now in New York State.

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