By David Osterfeld
Predictably, the accident at Chernobyl has rekindled the nuclear power controversy. The debate has generated a great deal of heat but precious little light. The atom is heralded by the pronuclear groups as a source of abundant, cheap power. It is condemned by the antinuclear groups as too dangerous. Ironically, the two groups seem to have their positions reversed.
In the optimistic days of the early 1950s the atom was seen as the genie that would supply the world with infinite quantities of cheap energy. "Heat will be so plentiful," predicted the Chancellor of the University of Chicago, "that it will be used to melt snow as it falls." But the short history of nuclear power is a history of skyrocketing costs, billion-dollar overruns, plant closings, and cancellations. Cost comparisons are difficult, but according to Worldwatch Institute: the average cost of electricity derived from nuclear power was ten to twelve cents per kilowatt hour in 1983 against only five to seven cents for coal. And the gap, if anything, is growing.
Why the huge discrepancy between promise and reality? In the early days of the Cold war, the government felt an urgent need to develop peaceful uses for the atom to offset its military use. Yet, with coal and oil prices low, private companies had little interest in the commercial use of nuclear power. To demonstrate the atom's commercial potentials the government created its costly Power Reactor Demonstration Program. And to maintain the facade of "free enterprise," it lured private companies with massive subsidies totalling as much as $46 billion and bullied them with hints that it would create a nuclear monopoly.
Moreover, since the government was impatient for results, competition among different designs was forbidden. Relying on limited data obtained mainly from nuclear submarines, the government channeled money into the development of the light water reactor. Alternative methods were excluded.
Thus the entire nuclear industry was the (premature) creation of the government, not the market. As the technical and safety problems proved more intractable than government "experts" anticipated, public support for nuclear power waned. even before Three Mile Island. The government reacted by repealing some of the subsidies and imposing an avalanche of regulations so detailed as to stipulate the exact number of turns per screw. The result: skyrocketing nuclear-power costs. The upshot is that we don't know what the actual costs of a freely developed nuclear-power industry would be.
What of the safety factor? Critics claim that nuclear power is "too dangerous." But too dangerous compared to what? The first prototype nuclear reactor began operation 30 years ago at Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The 28 deaths at Chernobyl are the only ones directly related to nuclear power. Even if one includes the estimated 33 cancer deaths in 1957 from the release of radioactive material at Windscale, a plutonium production plant in Liverpool, England, deaths worldwide from nuclear power would average two a year.
How does this compare to coal, the only viable alternative for electricity? Ignoring mine collapses and disasters such as the 4,000 coal-caused deaths in London in December 1952, which resulted from an abnormal buildup of sulfur dioxide, the human costs are quite high. Aside from coal's link with acid rain and the "greenhouse effect" from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that a single large coal burning plant causes 60,000 respiratory illnesses a year. And the office of Technology Assessment places the number of deaths related to coal at 50,000 a year in the United States alone.
According to studies by the noted physicist Bernard Cohen and others, if all U.S. electricity were nuclear. the average loss of life expectancy (LLE) from emissions of radioactivity and reactor accidents would be about 40 minutes. But coal, with an LLE of 13 days, is 430 times more dangerous. In fact, since the LLE for oil is 4.5 days and for natural gas 2.5 days. nuclear is the safest power source we have.
This means. as with nuclear power, that the official cost data are seriously flawed. The coal industry has been the recipient of an implicit, but massive and deadly, subsidy. It has been allowed to pollute, thereby shifting a large part of its real costs to others in the form of illness and death. Were the law to require industries to be fully responsible for all their costs, the utilities would have to install antipollution devices or make full compensation to the victims or heirs.
The only way to determine whether, all things considered, nuclear power is better—safer and cheaper—than coal, whether another source is superior to both, or whether there is an optimal mix of the two, is through a market test with full-cost accounting and full liability. Without that we are flying blind.
Professor Osterfeld teaches at the Saint Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Indiana and is a fellow of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.
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