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Column: Nuclear energy backers say it’s vital for the fight against global warming. Don’t be so sure via Los Angeles Times

BY MICHAEL HILTZIKBUSINESS COLUMNIST JAN. 6, 2022 5 AM PT

No one would have believed this possible only a few years ago, but nuclear energy has been creeping up in public estimation, despite its long record of unfulfilled promise and cataclysmic missteps.

The impetus has come from government and big business, among other sources.

Billions of dollars in incentives to keep existing nuclear plants operating and to get new nuclear technologies off the drawing board were enacted as part of the $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill signed late last year by President Biden.

Byron Wein, vice chairman of the big institutional investor Blackstone, listed among his predictions for 2022 that “the nuclear alternative for power generation enters the arena … and the viability of nuclear power is widely acknowledged.”

Some celebrity entrepreneurs have weighed in, without demonstrating that they have given the issue the thorough consideration it deserves. Elon Musk last month tweeted that “unless susceptible to extreme natural disasters, nuclear power plants should not be shut down.”

Musk didn’t, however, define “extreme natural disasters” or mention the myriad other reasons that a plant might need to be shuttered, such as advanced age, upside-down economics or dangers in its own design or operation.

[…]

Yet the enthusiasm overlooks some ugly truths about nuclear power.

The history of nuclear power in America is one of rushed and slipshod engineering, unwarranted assurances of public safety, political influence and financial chicanery, inept and duplicitous regulators, and mismanagement on a grand scale.

Many of the problems originated in the government’s decision to place the technology in the hands of the utility industry, which was ill-equipped to handle anything so complicated.

This record accounts for the technology’s deplorable public reputation, which has made it almost impossible to build a new nuclear plant in the U.S. for decades. Forgetting the history threatens to stage the same drama over again.

The debate over the nuclear power future is really two separate debates.

First, there are the optimistic expectations raised by alternatives to the design of the 93 reactors currently in operation in the U.S. — reactors in which a radioactive core heats water, producing steam to drive electricity-generating turbines.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the existing reactors, many of which have lasted well beyond their design lives. Only 28 of these have remained “competitive” — that is, economically viable — according to energy expert Amory Lovins.

[…]

Far from an advanced new technology, sodium-cooled reactors date from the very dawn of the nuclear power age. They were considered as an alternative to water-cooled reactors for submarine power plants, for example, by Adm. Hyman Rickover, the founder of America’s nuclear navy.

Rickover abandoned any thought of using the reactors in his submarines, finding them “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shut down as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair,” as he advised his Navy superiors and technical experts at the Atomic Energy Commission in late 1956 and early 1957.

The drawbacks of sodium technology should resonate especially loudly for Californians.

The 1959 explosion of a sodium-cooled test reactor at the government’s secretive Santa Susana Field Laboratory outside Simi Valley remains the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, venting an immense amount of radioactivity into the air and creating what former California EPA Director Jared Blumenfeld called “one of the most toxic sites in the United States by any kind of definition.”

The three entities controlling portions of the site — Boeing Co., the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA — reached agreements with the state in 2007 and 2010 binding them to restore the site to “background” standards. Much of the work still hasn’t begun.

[…]

As it eventually emerged, there are at least four major active faults within that range, prompting David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and the founder of Friends of the Earth, to jokingly describe nuclear reactors as “complex technological devices for locating earthquake faults.” (It was the Sierra Club’s endorsement of Diablo Canyon that prompted Brower to resign and form Friends of the Earth.)

[…]

As recently as Tuesday, California state investigators concluded that a PG&E power line sparked last year’s massive Dixie fire, which burned more than 960,000 acres in five Northern California counties. The investigators referred the case to local criminal prosecutors.

“PG&E seems to be incapable of operating safely,” says Daniel O. Hirsch, a former environmental faculty member at UC Santa Cruz and president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an anti-nuclear group. “You’re mixing an incompetent utility with an unforgiving technology.”

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