You flip a switch, and the light goes on. It's like magic. It is easy to forget how much impact electricity has, how it allows us to work at night, stay warm, send e-mail around the world and compute our debts. But generating electrical power has other effects. It is still one of the largest sources of air pollution, although—primarily due to emission controls—the levels of most air pollutants are dropping, according to the EPA.
Reducing air pollution and dependence on fossil fuels are common arguments for building more nuclear power plants. Entergy plans to build a second nuclear power plant in Mississippi, and is lobbying the state Legislature to pass a bill allowing them to fund its construction in advance by increasing consumers' rates. They argue that it is cheaper to pay as you go rather than to finance.
A more complete explanation is that Entergy wants to reduce its investment risk. Despite the tremendous demand for electricity in the United States, a nuclear power plant is a dicey investment. That is why so few plants have been built in the last 20 years. Part of the danger is public aversion to nuclear power, which can slow the building process. Another serious financial hazard is the significantly long-term commitment of waste, which the plant typically stores on-site indefinitely. To add to the problem, at the end of a nuclear power plant's life, the nuclear reactor itself becomes waste and must either be dismantled and removed to a long-term storage facility or entombed in concrete. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency requires Entergy or any nuclear utility to set aside at least another $300 million for that eventuality and allows up to 60 years to complete the task.
But where does the waste go, and how will it get there? The United States built a long-term repository for high-level radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain, Nev., but the good people of Nevada don't want it, and who can blame them? It is also a bit of a logistical and public relations nightmare to transport the waste. How are we going to move tons of high-level nuclear waste through the country? Secretly?
Yes, probably, if at all, because of the threat of terrorism and public protest from people who will not want it going through their town.
So, where is the spent nuclear fuel from all those nuclear power plants in the United States and the one current Mississippi plant going now? Absolutely nowhere. As standard practice, it is stored on-site. Virtually every nuclear plant is also, for practical reasons, a nuclear waste storage facility. Spent nuclear fuel rods are too radioactive to be safely moved for at least six months after they are removed from the reactor and, the longer they sit, the less dangerously radioactive they become over time.
But surely, someday, they will be moved, right? Actually, this rarely happens. Plants hardly ever move high-level nuclear waste anywhere because of the high costs, difficult logistics and residents' unwillingness to accept nuclear waste for permanent storage in their state.
So the rods just stay in place, waiting, waiting, waiting—for the federal government to come up with a better plan.
So, what Entergy wants, in essence, is a down payment for a very long-term relationship with nuclear power and nuclear waste that will extend actively at least 100 years into the future. If the plant does not remove the waste—it may never happen—the relationship is virtually permanent. Entergy and its customers could end up paying for the plant for a long time indeed (unless the plant is sold to a Chinese energy conglomerate).
With all those costs extending so far out into the future, it is all the more reason why Entergy wants to get an early start on raising money for it. It is also why Mississippians should take a long hard look at the total costs and long-term impact of the plant before making that down payment.
Greg Williamson is a former emergency management planner with 10 years experience in state and local hazard mitigation planning.