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Nuclear Risks and Why We Need to Adopt Renewable Energy
Excerpt from the report, Public Benefits of Renewable Energy Use
Union of Concerned Scientists

Although nuclear power plants avoid many of the air emissions associated with fossil fuel plants, they create unique environmental risks. A combination of human and mechanical error could result in an accident killing several thousand people, injuring several hundred thousand others, contaminating large areas of land, and costing billions of dollars.

While the odds of such an accident are low, the Chernobyl accident in 1986 showed that they can occur.

Major nuclear accidents can only result from many failures occurring at about the same time. But in order to maintain safety margins, inspectors and tests must identify equipment problems, and plants must have accurate procedures to minimize worker errors. A 1998 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found a breakdown in quality assurance during a one-year study of a 10-plant focus group. The plants' internal auditors did not identify in advance any of more than 200 problems reported in 1997. In addition, many problems resulted from worker errors or poor procedures. A 1997 report by the US General Accounting Office criticized the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for failing to catch declining performance at some plants. These findings are especially significant at a time when nuclear plants are cutting costs to become more competitive. Cutting costs need not jeopardize nuclear safety, but maintaining safety in this environment requires increased attention.

Pressure to cut costs at marginal nuclear plants could reduce the margin of error on safety. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission attributed safety problems at the closed Maine Yankee nuclear plant to "economic pressure to be a low-cost energy producer" -- pressure that limited the resources available for repairs.

The erosion of safety measures can be subtle. Staff downsizing programs often target senior employees who receive high compensation. Their departure lowers the corporate experience level and may possibly increase the frequency of human error. Some nuclear utilities reduce costs by scaling back safety monitoring efforts, such as inspecting and testing safety equipment less often and postponing preventive maintenance.

In addition to safety issues, nuclear plants continue to be problematic because of their spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste. By 1995, US nuclear plants had produced almost 32,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste. Finding a way to keep this waste out of the environment for the thousands of years it remains radioactive has proven difficult. Problems such as groundwater contamination led to four of the six commercial facilities that store low-level radioactive waste being closed. And, despite years of research, the permanent repository the government hopes to build at Yucca Mountain still has unresolved issues.

But regardless of the environmental issues, it is economics that is most hurting the nuclear industry. In 1998, about 40 percent of the nuclear plants in the United States were producing power at prices above the short-term market rate. A study by the Washington International Energy Group concludes that about 37 percent of the combined nuclear capacity of the United States and Canada could be retired as a result of competition. If fossil fuels are the only replacement option, early nuclear retirements will raise the cost for the country to comply with emission-reduction goals. Most of the planned increases in US natural gas capacity could be needed to replace these retiring nuclear plants, which means that little new capacity would be available to displace coal generation. Even if the nuclear plants were to operate until the end of their license periods, abundant low-emission replacement options would be needed. The availability of significant renewable generation could help to mitigate these nuclear-replacement problems, lowering the costs of regulatory compliance for industry as well as utilities and avoiding the risks inherent in nuclear power generation.

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