In 1991 former President George H. W. Bush designated October as Energy Awareness Month. The proclamation stated, Continuing instability and conflict in some regions of the world underscore the need to use energy efficiently; to reduce our dependence on insecure sources of energy; and to develop more energy resources.
The 2005 theme for Energy Awareness Month Not In Use? Turn Off the Juice! wisely highlights the importance of using energy efficiently.
However, perhaps we should take pause to better understand how the recently passed national energy bill may more likely increase the number of nuclear power plants in Georgia or other nearby states than provide effective ways to reduce our energy use, save us money at the gas pump, or promote safe, reliable ways to produce electricity.
As a nation, from 1948 to 1998, we spent more than $111 billion on total energy research and development. Sixty-six billion dollars, or 59 percent of that total, was spent on nuclear power, an industry that provides only 20 percent of the total electricity generated in the country. The national energy bill extends these massive corporate giveaways to the nuclear industry.
For example, it provides a production tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour for the first half dozen nuclear power plants built, which could cost the government over five billion dollars. This is considered one of the most influential tax subsidies to the nuclear industry because the costs are so high to initially build a plant.
Historically, investing in nuclear power has been risky for utilities and ratepayers. An analysis using figures from a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study, adjusted to exclude the effects of inflation and interest, shows that the total estimated cost for a group of 75 U.S. nuclear reactors was $45 billion but the actual cost turned out to be $145 billion (both in 1990 dollars).
Here in Georgia, nuclear plant Vogtle in Burke County experienced significant cost overruns. The final capped costs to build the plant were over $8 billion, nearly 12 times the original cost estimates, resulting in one of the largest rate hikes in Georgias history. The current energy bill acknowledges nuclear powers economic instability by doling out taxpayer dollars, yet again, to keep the nuclear industry afloat.
Despite experiencing these risks firsthand, Southern Company (parent company of Georgia Power and Savannah Electric, among other subsidiaries) is again pursuing nuclear power. Southern is a member of NuStart Energy Development, LLC, a consortium made up of nine nuclear power companies and two reactor manufacturers.
NuStart is taking advantage of the DOEs Nuclear Power 2010 program that offers a 50-50 cost sharing initiative (as in, half the cost is paid by the industry and the other half is paid for by the government, better known as the American taxpayer) to offset the more than $500 million price tag itll take just to prepare a new licensing application known as a Combined Construction and Operating License (referred to as a COL).
Six candidate sites were initially chosen including our polluting upstream neighbor, the DOEs Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina along the Savannah River (also known as the Bomb Plant). NuStart has said the final two sites will be selected this October.
Southern Company is also looking to go it alone by possibly building a third reactor at Vogtle. They plan to pursue another new licensing process in 2006 that can also qualify for this 50-50 cost sharing incentive, known as an Early Site Permit (ESP) and have begun preliminary work. They may even pursue a COL or a mix of both.
On economic grounds, its easy to see why nuclear power is risky. But what about other objections to building more nuclear power plants? Here are a few:
Nuclear power poses national security risks. In February, FBI Director Mueller told Senate Select Intelligence Committee members that they consider the energy sector vulnerable and target-rich, particularly nuclear power plants, and reiterated that Al Qaeda leaders had nuclear power plants in their target set and they have no reason to believe Al Qaeda has reconsidered.
And the reactors arent the only security concern. The used or spent fuel sitting in storage pools or outside in storage casks, such as at Plant Hatch along the Altamaha River, are a problem. In terms of natural disasters, such as Katrina, nuclear power hasnt proven itself as a reliable supply. The Waterford nuclear plant just west of New Orleans shut down before the hurricane hit. For days it had no offsite power except from the emergency back up diesel generators and was still down two weeks later, not producing a bit of electricity.
Nuclear power plants are large water users. Plant Vogtle and Plant Hatch, along the Savannah and Altamaha rivers respectively, both consume tens of millions of gallons of water every day that is not returned to the rivers. The water that is returned is thermally hotter and can impact the surrounding environment.
For safety reasons, nuclear power plants must have continuous water supplies available in order to keep the radioactive fuel cool. At a time when Georgia struggles to manage its water resources, it is disconcerting to see companies tying up those resources for decades to come.
Nuclear power does not reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil. Very little of our electricity in the U.S. is produced from burning oil.
And we dont fill up our gas tanks with electricity, so building more nuclear plants, as the recently passed energy bill aims to do, wont solve our problems at the pump.
Though the development of hydrogen as a fuel is part of the energy bill, producing it from nuclear plants, which is also in the bill, would be a very expensive and risky proposal. We could instead produce biofuels, such as biodiesel, or even hydrogen, from forestry and farm materials of which we have plentiful supplies here in the Southeast. This would certainly be safer while benefiting our rural communities.
Although there are incentives for this and other renewable energy supplies in the energy bill, there are not enough. And as this years theme advocates, energy efficiency and conservation remain a wise choice for all of us.
Sara Barczak is the Safe Energy Director with Southern Alliance for Clean Energy here in Savannah, www.cleanenergy.org.
The Savannah premiere of the film, Kilowatt Ours and subsequent panel discussion are at 7 pm, Sunday, October 9th at the Sentient Bean, 13 East Park. For more on the film, visit www.kilowattours.org.