The debate over nuclear has generally boiled down to two questions: safety and the challenge of waste disposal. There is always talk of safety, but proponents can easily point to the half-century of global experience with nuclear energy and the very few—albeit disastrous—incidents of the proverbial genie escaping its lead-lined, super-cooled, concrete bottle. Proponents are also quick to dismiss waste issues by pointing to new technologies that recycle much of the spent fuel. The wild card that is common to every nuclear facility, however, is not technology or waste—it’s human error.
The report from Japan last week about the Fukushima nuclear disaster makes that abundantly clear, as would any similar report about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or even the thus-far benign closure of Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). In fact, no one yet knows why pipes at SONGS are leaking radioactive steam, but that engineers did not predict it and that everyone at Edison is surprised by the failure attests to the limits of human calculation, even after that half-century of experience.
Nor can we dismiss the waste disposal issue so quickly, especially in an age when terrorists are thought to covet spent nuclear material. Delaware Senator Tom Carper commented recently that Congress has tried to solve the disposal issue for decades, but "over 30 years later, we find ourselves at what is really a dead end,’’ he said. "Somehow, we’ve learned how to get communities to compete for the siting of prisons in this country, but we haven’t learned how to get communities to compete for our disposal sites.’’ In other words, communities all over the nation have calculated that the risks are not worth any possible rewards.
And when speaking of the cost-benefit analysis of nuclear power, let’s recall that this is the only industry that has a law protecting it from itself. The Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act of 1957 caps the liability of power plant owners and their insurance companies for nuclear accidents at $12.6 billion, after which taxpayers are on the hook. Chernobyl is estimated to have cost some $235 billion for containment, cleanup, and resettlement. Estimates for the Fukushima disaster have also been in the several hundred billion dollar range. Many proponents of nuclear power are the same "let the market work" advocates in economics and politics today. If the market were allowed to function in this case, would any new nuclear power plants be built in America—or existing ones re-licensed—if Price-Anderson were repealed?
The inevitable solution is to turn the same ingenuity and lobbying efforts that go into protecting nuclear to instead focus renewable energy. Of course there are still cost and technological hurdles to overcome with these options, too, but the sun spills on us every day and the wind blows across our communities every minute without need of government insurance policies or controversial waste disposal plans. And the biggest impact of human error with renewables is that we allow magical thinking around things like nuclear energy to stall the development of clean, safe, reliable alternatives much sooner.