As seen in issue 51 of Closer Magazine, published on 2008-03-08 in the "Featured" section.
FPL says “new nukes.” Skeptics say “no nukes.”
By: Marya Summers
If only our mothers had warned us, “Turn those lights off and close the refrigerator door or it’ll be nuclear radiation for the lot of you!” we might have done things differently.
Maybe by putting energy in such a context, we’d have paid more attention to commercial consumption, been more vocal about industrial excesses and pushed for conservation.
Now, however, thanks to our insatiable demand for power, politicians and the energy industry are heralding a “nuclear renaissance.” Or the golden age of toxicity, depending on how you look at it.
For the first time since building the last plant in the US in 1979, the nuclear power industry has big plans, a “nuclear renaissance,” according to a January report from the American Nuclear Society, an industry group, “with perhaps 30 reactor license applications on the way and actual reactor orders seeming imminent.”
We’ll feel the boom right here in South Florida. Recently, all four of FPL’s Florida nuclear reactors were approved to operate 20 years further than their original 40-year licenses. And FPL was among the first utilities in the country to begin the 10-year application process to build new nuclear reactors—two each at Miami’s Turkey Point and St. Lucie’s Hutchinson Island facilities. The Florida Public Service Commission makes its decision in March.
The first step is to have nuclear plants uprated, again. In December 2007, the PSC approved another set of uprates to the Turkey Point and St. Lucie facilities. In February 2008, the ANS reported these power increases would take the reactors “close to the current regulatory limit for power uprates.”
To support its petition for new reactors, FPL says Florida has “some of the fastest-growing communities in the nation…[with] an average increase of approximately 85,000 new customer accounts annually for the next 15 years.” Not only are there more people, but FPL reports the average residential customer uses 30 percent more electricity than 20 years ago.
The utilities company says that the proposed units will improve fuel diversity, reduce Florida’s dependence on oil and natural gas, reduce air emissions compliance costs and contribute to the long-term stability and reliability of Florida’s electric grid.
The company also appeals to fear of hurricanes. They say nuclear power doesn’t emit greenhouse gases that have been linked to climate change and the increase in power and frequency of these storms; coal and gas plants do. And, they claim, after a hurricane residents will have their power returned more quickly.
If we’re going to sustain our power-hungry lifestyles and a growing population, we’ll need more electricity. But why the push for more nuclear power – why not coal or gas or renewables like wind and solar?
Well, FPL does use all of these. But they have their problems.
Coal-fired plants, the dirtiest of our energy sources, are being phased out. Gas plants, while far cleaner, still produce lots of carbon dioxide and mercury; fuel prices are also volatile. FPL less aggressively pursues renewable sources of energy, though its PR folks tout the program efforts of Sunshine Energy.
“It’s one of the largest renewable energy programs in the country,” says Sharon Bennett, FPL senior media rep.
Sadly, such programs currently account for only about two percent of the total energy generated by combined sources.
To meet the demand, FPL added a natural gas-fired generating unit at Turkey Point in Miami-Dade County that became operational in May 2007 and plans to open two new natural gas-fired units at the West County Energy Center in Palm Beach County in 2009 and 2010. But these new units, says FPL, will only meet demands through 2010.
The utilities company contends that more nuclear power is the solution – but don’t call it a “push” for more nuclear energy.
“It’s not a ‘push,’” objects Bennett. “It’s a growing Florida population that we have an obligation to provide power to.”
The Clean Machine?
A massive publicity campaign launched in 2006 by the nuclear power industry (which includes government agencies) has well-rehearsed positions: Nuclear energy is clean, safe, and inexpensive. The George W. Bush-appointed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (two of its five seats vacant) gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up to these claims. They dismiss the idea that toxic waste and radiation are terrible environmental hazards as an old wives’ tale.
In its favor, nuclear fission creates no greenhouse gases. But the nuclear industry creates substantial greenhouse gases in the manufacturing and dismantling of nuclear plants, the processes of mining, processing, transport, and enrichment of uranium fuel, and then in the processing, transport, and burial of waste.
Additionally, the mining process is quite messy, generating lots of sludge and releasing radon into the environment. Since we don’t mine for uranium here in Florida, we don’t see the mess. Instead, we see lush wilderness offering homes to endangered species surrounding Turkey Point and St. Lucie plants, which FPL uses as visual proofs of their claim that nuclear energy is green.
What visitors don’t see are the wet storage ponds, where toxic waste is stored indefinitely until the federal government removes it for burial in containers. Note, though, that FPL’s wet storage is reaching capacity because the government hasn’t lived up to its promises to remove it. Neither do visitors see the radioactive particles released into the environment.
“The most troubling thing is this mantra that nuclear power is safe,” says Joseph J. Mangano, Executive Director of the non-profit Radiation and Public Health Project (radiation.org). “The answer to that is ‘Prove it!’ but [industry and government offices that support it] never publish journal articles on it. They just do an internal report and say, ‘You’re wrong.’”
Mangano’s group is best known for its baby teeth studies, in which teeth are collected and measured for the presence of Strontium-90. The radioactive substance created during nuclear fission is released into the environment and attaches to the teeth and bones.
“When compared with baby teeth collected from other Florida counties, the highest levels of Sr-90 were found in the six southeast counties closest to the Turkey Point and St. Lucie nuclear reactors: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River,” Mangano says.
Further, Mangano cites the Archives of Environmental Health, which studied 14 nuclear plants and determined the surrounding areas had a higher childhood cancer rate than the rest of the country. Disturbingly, the South Florida nuclear sites ranked number 1 and number 2. St. Lucie & Martin counties had a 45% higher rate than the US average; Miami-Dade, a 28% higher rate.
The government attributes the presence of Sr-90 in the teeth to atomic testing, which ended in 1963, rather than to nuclear power plants, most of which were built in the ‘70s.
According to Mangano, after 1963 the levels of Sr-90 dropped. “But we’ve seen a reversal,” he says, noting that though the last plant was built in 1979, radioactivity has increased thanks to plant uprates. “From the late ‘80s to the mid-‘90s, in Florida, the average strontium levels increased by 36 percent.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to downplay the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island, when a core meltdown included a significant release of radiation. Though the accident took a decade and millions of dollars to clean up, the NRC stands firm that people’s exposure amounted to less radiation than if they’d received a set of chest X-rays.
Twenty years later, researchers reported in Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of the National Institute of Health Science, that the increases in lung cancer and leukemia near the Pennsylvania plant suggest a much greater release of radiation than had been believed. This new evidence came a year after a judge dismissed damage claims by more than 2,000 neighboring residents because of “paucity of proof,” though claimants had severe symptoms of high radiation, including vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and dying pets.
Now, 30 years after the meltdown, pro-nukers are using the judge’s dismissal of the case as proof of nuclear power plants’ safety even in a worst-case scenario.
The first commercial U.S. nuclear power plant became operational in 1957, built on a promise that such technology would produce “energy too cheap to meter.” That has proven to be untrue.
For uprates alone, FPL estimates costs will total approximately $1.5 billion – $766 million at Turkey Point and $706 million at St. Lucie. In addition to the uprates, the cost of changes to the transmission system is estimated at $45 million.
The FPL website assures, “Even with this cost, increasing the use of nuclear power will displace generation produced from higher cost fuels such as oil and natural gas or purchased power, thereby producing substantial fuel savings that would be reflected in customers’ electric bills.”
“With respect to cost, while nuclear generation is initially expensive to build, it has the lowest production costs of any widely used fuel to generate electricity, including coal,” wrote FPL president Armando Olivera, in a February editorial in the Palm Beach Post.
George W. Bush also supports the nuclear push. In December the president signed into law a bill to allocate more than $917 million in 2008 to the National Regulatory Commission for new reactor licensing and other missions.
Here’s the kicker: About eight-five percent of that – $771 million – is to be recovered through user fees. That means “on your electric bill.”
It doesn’t stop there. FPL projects it will cost $28-$42 billion for the two new units at Turkey Point. And, utilities companies are now permitted (thanks to the 2007 law) to charge for a nuclear plant’s construction costs years before the plant produces power.
Green All Over
FPL will be counting the long green of profits from nuclear power. But the push for a nuclear renaissance will make us all green, metaphorically speaking. The question is: Will it be the verdant green of grassroots organizing and conservation or the putrid chartreuse of nuclear waste and radiation?
“In the case of the new reactors, the only one way to go is for people to demand accountability from elected officials and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” says Mangano. “Demand proof. That’s the only way it’s going to work. It’s not going to be determined on scientific grounds but on political grounds.”
Among the hidden costs of nuclear power:
* the poisoning of indigenous people and ecosystems in the mining and extraction of uranium
* the consumption of massive amounts of fossil fuels in the production process, including the mining, refining, and transportation of uranium
* the use of massive amounts of water for the cooling of the plants, placing unnecessary demands on the supply of ever more precious water
* the long term health risks associated with ongoing radioactive emissions from nuclear plants
* the negative environmental impacts on marine life in the plant's discharge zone
* the ever present potential for catastrophic failure
* the permanent need for security to prevent attacks on nuclear facilities
* the long term handling and storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste, which remains a threat to public health and safety for millennia
Source: Green Party of Florida and the Miami-Dade Green Party