Nuclear Power is not a solution for anything except perhaps the nuclear industry’s desire for taxpayer dollars.
The nuclear industry sales pitch, such as presented to a largely invitation-only meeting in Pueblo on July 15, promotes “new nuclear” or advanced nuclear. But, so far, the only thing new is the packaging of the reactors. Even that is still experimental and on the drawing board, with NuScale working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on various elements of their design licensing.
No operating commercial models have been built, and even if everything goes according to schedule, a pilot plant in Idaho is not expected to be completed until about 2030 — at a cost of $1.3 to $3.6 billion, which they have received from us taxpayers via the Department of Energy. According to widely available statistics of energy costs, nuclear is still the most expensive generation source.
NuScale corporation’s small modular reactors are, in fact, the same light-water nuclear reactors as used to generate power in other settings. They use uranium as fuel, requiring cooling water, and generating the same radioactive waste products. To generate power at the level of the coal-fired Comanche 3 power plant in Pueblo County would require at least twelve of the reactors NuScale is proposing. So instead of one large reactor, there would be twelve or more nuclear reactors, with a correspondingly greater probability of error or accidents.
For NuScale, as with other nuclear reactors, even if their more experimental proposal for air-cooled versus water-cooled generating capacity is accepted by the NRC, the waste extracted from the reactors every 12-24 months would have to be stored for five years per batch in a pool of cooling water, with the necessity of use and refreshment of this pool for the life of the plant. A corollary of the waste fuel handling is that each of the twelve reactors must be opened and the radioactive fuel transferred and replaced every 24 months at the least, again with a multiplied probability for accidents or errors.
Because there is no long-term national repository for high-level nuclear waste, this waste will be stored on-site in the community where it was generated for many years. Because that waste has a half-life of more than 20,000 years (meaning at that point half of the radioactivity will be broken down), it will remain a burden to future generations for as long as any of us can imagine.
Although proponents present nuclear power as a ready, clean solution to the climate crisis, it is neither. The classic nuclear power plants with their iconic cooling towers are aging out of the system, following a long history of operational difficulties, environmental contamination, closure and clean-up issues — as well as the storage of radioactive waste, essentially, in perpetuity. The “new nuclear” is not new except for means to package it and is at least 10 years or more from even being ready for commercial construction.
The proponents, including NuScale, want to put these plants into closed coal fired power plants, in communities often well within the zones of risk set by the NRC. Because that could rightfully raise community concerns, as well as increasing potential casualties in case of an accident, NuScale is asking the NRC to reduce the zones of protection around their nuclear reactors and radioactive waste sites because of the claimed lower risk for their still-experimental multi-reactor units.
Is Colorado ready for an unproven energy “solution” that will not even be ready for testing for a decade? The answer is “no.”
Velma L. Campbell, MD, MPH is a physician specializing in public health, particularly occupational and environmental health. She is the vice-chair of the Sangre de Cristo Group of the Sierra Club