Nuclear Power: The Unfulfilled Promise of Cheap, Clean Energy

VIDEO: The Safety of Nuclear
WATCH Nuclear Power Through History

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.

It is often said that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl killed the U.S. nuclear industry. But the dollar, not the fear of accidents, dealt the most lethal blow.

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.

Nuclear Power: Harsh Lessons

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."

Weeks later, the Times began publishing a series of stories documenting mismanagement by the AEC and its contractors. More than half a million gallons of deadly radioactive liquid had leaked from huge storage tanks at the AEC's Hanford facility in Washington state. Some of it was so hot it boiled from its own radioactive decay and had to be cooled to keep from melting the steel tanks. Similar problems were found at other storage sites in South Carolina and Idaho, where plutonium, one of the most dangerous substances on the planet, had been buried in ordinary steel drums despite stern warnings that the drums would leak. And they did.

The list went on and on, and it could be dismissed as ancient history now, except for this minor point. The situation hasn't changed that much. All these years later, there still is no safe and reliable way of storing the radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear power plants. In most cases, it is held in what looks like a swimming pool at the same site as the reactor that produced it, making it a tempting target for terrorists, according to one study.

George Kennedy died shortly after those stories ran in the Times. The AEC issued a press release denying that it had mismanaged the waste, but it never disputed any of the facts that came from Kennedy's file cabinet, and even from sources in the AEC itself.

What to Do About Nuclear Power?

Today, we are on the cusp of a renewal of the U.S. nuclear program, backed by a White House plan to offer $36 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of up to 20 new plants.

Even many environmental groups have quieted in former opposition to nuclear power. Proponents point out that it's virtually impossible for the United States to meet its energy and environmental requirements without it. They also say that all sources of energy come with costly baggage. Often overlooked in the environmental mess created by the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the fact that 11 workers died.

No energy is cheap, in dollars as well as human life.

So nuclear energy is likely to get a reprieve, despite the horror we see in Japan, a nation with special sensitivity to radiation. Perhaps there is no other way.

But I keep thinking about the past and future of that sprawling reservation near the Columbia River in western Washington. There's enough radioactive waste there to destroy a large city, or possibly even a country. It has to be isolated, and contained, no matter what it costs. It will remain deadly for an incredibly long period.

So thousands and thousands of years from now, humans will still have to guard that site.

That's a sobering challenge for a nation that is still young.