DTE Energy, formerly known as Detroit Edison, is in the process of renewing the license to operate its Fermi 2 nuclear reactor in Monroe. The original license expires in March of 2025. If the extension is granted – and so far 72 out of 72 applications for license extensions have been granted – then DTE will be allowed to operate this reactor until 2045. Another 20-year extension is possible, pushing the expiration date out to 2065.
Nuclear proponents say that extending plants’ lifetimes is both economical and a good way to hold down carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, fission power plants, though generally profitable for the companies which operate them, are both expensive and dangerous.
Nuclear power plants would never have been built without massive subsidies, including especially the Price-Anderson Act, which says that the federal government will pay for damages above $10 billion resulting from a nuclear accident such as a meltdown. $10 billion sounds like a lot, until you notice that the Japanese government recently announced that it’s borrowing about $30 billion more to cover costs related to Fukushima, bringing the total amount the Japanese government has borrowed for this purpose to around $80 billion.
The $80 billion does not include damages to the more than 150,000 people who had to evacuate the Fukushima region. It is “just” financing for the direct cleanup effort, and there is no indication that the cleanup will be finished for decades to come. In case of a meltdown at Fermi 2, there is no exact determination of how many would need to be evacuated from this much more densely populated area. Roughly 5 million people live within 50 miles of Fermi 2.
Multiple official documents state that the danger of a meltdown is negligible. In fact 4 of the roughly 400 commercial reactors in the world have melted down. Fermi 2 shares the exact General Electric Mark 1 containment design with the three Fukushima reactors that melted down in 2011. While we need not expect a tsunami in Lake Erie, there are many other possible events that could cause a lengthy loss of station power for Fermi 2, and that’s all it takes to cause an identical meltdown.
While there are no carbon dioxide emissions coming directly from operation of a nuclear reactor, there were plenty of emissions coming from coming from the mining and manufacture of the steel, copper, concrete and other materials needed to construct the plant. There are ongoing emissions coming from mining, manufacture and transportation of nuclear fuel rods. And many more carbon emissions will come from handling and (ultimately) properly disposing of spent fuel and other radioactive waste.
In fairness, carbon dioxide emissions are also generated in the mining, manufacture and transportation of solar panels and wind turbines. All these means of creating electricity are products of our industrial society, and both carbon dioxide emissions and other forms of pollution come from the process of creating this equipment.
For a simple first-order comparison, operation of a nuclear reactor, a wind turbine or a solar electrical panel does not directly generate emissions, while operating a coal-fired, gas-fired or diesel fueled power plant does generate carbon emissions. Of course, neither wind turbines nor solar panels generate radioactivity with all its attendant costs and dangers.
In other words, a nuclear reactor is a good way to hold down emissions in the same sense that a combination of purging, smoking and methamphetamine is a good way to lose weight quick. It works, but the side effects are terrible.
The other thing that proponents of nuclear power say is that we need the electricity. This argument sounds irrefutable, until we examine it. What would it take to replace nuclear reactors, and how soon could we do it?
In 2013, solar PV and wind together accounted for roughly 4% of all electricity used in the United States. (See http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/.) Let’s suppose, just to see what could happen, that the United States were to have a sustained energy policy focused on developing wind and solar. Yes, it would take profound political change caused by a strong environmental movement, and we don’t have that – but let’s see what would be possible anyhow.
Let’s say the amount of installed wind and solar (4% in 2013) were to increase by 26% each year. That’s doable. It would take three years to double the amount of installed wind and solar. Faster is actually possible, but let’s do the calculation with a three-year doubling time. Do the math, and we would have 5 doubling times by 2028; from 4% in 2013 to 8% in 2016; 16% in 2019; 32% in 2022; 64% in 2025; and 128% of 2013 levels by the end of 2028.
It’s possible then, to replace all coal, nuclear and natural gas used to generate electricity. We could have the electricity without the radioactivity of nuclear or the carbon emissions of fossil fuels. Yes, things could change that fast, if we had in place today policies that would push us in that direction. Closing Fermi 2 in 2025 would be no problem at all. We would also take a giant bite out of carbon emissions. It will happen only with a strong environmental movement that will not take “No” for an answer.