From the beginning, the civilian use of the atom was supposed to lead to clean, cheap and inexhaustible electricity, turning the horror of nuclear weapons into something peaceful that would benefit the entire planet. The haunting memories of a mushroom cloud would dim as the nation beat its swords into plowshares, turning the weapons that decimated Japan at the end of World War II into harbingers of global peace.
But it never worked out that way. From the beginning, the bridal gown was soiled.
An early commissioner of the old Atomic Energy Commission, charged with the conflicting roles of both promoting and regulating civilian nuclear programs, toured the country, claiming the atom would make electricity so cheap that it would be sold at a flat rate. No need to charge based on consumption. Take all you want.
But it turned out to be the most expensive way of generating power. Some 29 years after the last nuclear power plant was built in the United States, a team of researchers from Georgetown University, Stanford University, and the University of California Berkeley concluded that the atom had priced itself out of the market. Their conclusion was based chiefly on the "surprises" that constantly haunted the industry, making investors wary of putting their money into multi-billion dollar plants that had to operate perfectly for many decades to realize a profit.
Politicians from the president down are pumping nuclear power as a means of freeing us from foreign oil and easing global climate change. But nuclear plants need fuel, and there's no inexhaustible source. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology warned four years ago that uranium was in short supply and was not being mined enough to meet the demand. That had pushed the cost up from $10 a pound to $85. And that's only the beginning of a costly process to concentrate the only important isotope, uranium-235, in a process called enrichment.
And is it clean? Sure, if nobody makes a mistake, and all of the complex components of a nuclear power plant work perfectly, and mountains of radioactive waste products never escape confinement. Now there's the elephant sitting in the corner.
Decades ago, when I was a green reporter for the Los Angeles Times, the director of the Institute of Geophysics at the University of California, Los Angeles, told me an amazing story. His name was George Kennedy, and he had been asked by the Atomic Energy Commission to look into problems associated with managing tons of nuclear waste. It turned out that he was too good at the job. When he told the AEC to shut down its sprawling reservation in eastern Washington state because the task of safeguarding radioactive waste had been bungled, he was informed his services were no longer needed, and to please keep his mouth shut.
I read the letter myself. Kennedy was so outraged he pointed to a file cabinet and said, "It's all in there. Have at it."