Beyond Our Means: The Uncertain Exorbitant Price of Nuclear Energy

Aparna Bakhle

Born in Mumbai, raised by the United States, Aparna Bakhle lives and writes in Los Angeles, California.

Currently, she is working on The First Ray of Light After Sunrise, a novel exploring metaphysical exile through the loss of belonging.

My paternal grandfather, D.S. Bakhle, ICS, who once lived along the Maharasthtra coast in a village in Raigad District, made a relevant observation in a letter, curiously never mailed, dated May 29, 1974, to my mother, who lived in what was known then as Bombay.

Mandwa is peaceful now.  We have even had a few showers but I guess they were unseasonable.  The storm on Saturday, the 18th was terrific- all the sand seemed to have decided to lift up __ into a dust screen.  It was a frightening sight.  I hope the explosion in Rajasthan had nothing to do with it. 

May 18, 1974, 8:05 AM (IST), India conducted its first nuclear test explosion, perversely codenamed ‘The Smiling Buddha,’ at the Pokhran Test Range in Rajasthan.

Indisputably, deplorable levels of socio-economic inequity abound, not only within India, but increasingly in many other parts of our world as well.  Electricity has long been a critical flash point within discussions of how ‘have-nots’ might get closer to ‘haves.’  ‘Having’ in our techno-capitalist world is necessarily facilitated by energy, specifically in the form of fuel, which we learn to consume insatiably to do practically everything, with all that we have and hope to have.  But worldwide, 1.4 billion people lack electricity (87% of whom live in rural areas) and 1 billion have access only to unreliable electricity.  Of these 1.4 billion who lack any access, we can include 300 million Indian citizens.1   That figure comprises one third of the nation’s rural population, a sixth of its urban population, and as much as almost the entire population of the United States.  While some of the more ‘developed’ world does what it can to reduce its carbon footprint and conserve, so many millions cannot even begin to pursue the lives those in the ‘developed’ world have the choice to reframe and also reject.  It is within this context then that, under the questionable influence of industry, some governments, whose hubris may prevent the hindsight of vision, tout nuclear power, as the answer to the increasing needs of energy hungry societies upon our warming planet.

Yet, when fully considered, the fact remains that the true costs of this purported nuclear solution are astronomical.  Momentarily putting aside the incredibly compelling moral imperative to just say NO to nuclear,  these costs are unaffordable largely because it is almost impossible to accurately predict the cost of nuclear reactors until long after they are actually built, and construction delays are now par for the course.  Certainly, heavy industry lobbying ensures that the nuclear option not only remains on the table but also is pushed ahead of other possibly more sustainable power options, such as tidal, wave, wind, solar, geothermal and other viable renewables.  Karl Grossman, professor of journalism of SUNY/College of Old Westbury, is also an investigative reporter who just published an urgent plea in Counterpunch, beseeching people to inform themselves of the real facts buried under the massive nuclear disinformation campaigns used to numb us into complacency and submission.  Grossman references independent journalist Miranda Spencer, writing in last May’s issue of Extra! Magazine-

“wind is already cheaper per kilowatt-hour than nuclear,” and “the National Research Council estimates that by 2020, the cost of geothermal will be comparable to or lower than that of nuclear (10 cents/kwh versus 6-13 cents/kwh).” Solar power, which the Council said “could potentially produce many times the current and projected future U.S. electricity consumption,” is projected to cost anywhere from 8-30 cents/kwh.  Also, “A Duke University study found that the cost of solar power has not only recently declined by half, but also is poised to become cheaper than nuclear, even in places that aren’t always sunny.” The claims, she accurately wrote, that safe, clean, renewable power is not here to substitute for atomic energy “simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.”

Due to the tragedy still unfolding at Fukushima, even Japan, home to the world’s third largest nuclear fleet, has shut down all but 2 of its 54 reactors and cancelled all new reactor projects.  Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Kuwait and many other countries are opting to further develop renewables instead of nuclear power.  According to a 2011 status report put out by The Worldwatch Institute, key findings included “annual renewable capacity additions have been outpacing nuclear start-ups for the past 15 years. In the United States, the share of renewables in new capacity additions skyrocketed from 2 percent in 2004 to 55 percent in 2009, with no new nuclear capacity added.”2   For the first time ever, in 2010, worldwide cumulative installed capacity from wind turbines, solar power, biomass and waste-to-waste energy now surpasses installed nuclear capacity and total nuclear power generation has dropped for four years in a row.  As of April 1, 2011, 437 nuclear reactors were operating in the world, seven fewer than in 2002.  In 2008, for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age, no new unit was started up.  In 2009 and 2010, seven new 100 percent subsidized reactors were added, while eleven were shut down during this same period. “In 2009, nuclear power plants generated 2,558 Terawatt-hours of electricity, about 2 percent less than the previous year. The industry’s lobby organization headlined ‘another drop in nuclear generation’—the fourth year in a row.”3

The same Worldwatch Institute report mentioned above found that it is central planners who are responsible for the construction of every nuclear power plant currently underway and furthermore, not one single plant was a free market purchase, “fairly competed against or compared with alternatives.”4   So why are the advocates of nuclear energy that seem to lead most major governments taking us all down this primrose path?  If only it wasn’t so predictably money, but industry lobbyists are nothing if not flush with way too much cash, which they selectively dole out to the most compromised politicians of all colors and stripes.  Some cursory digging also reveals only a handful of vendors are positioned to supply critical reactor components.  Add to this a shortage of engineering and construction skills in the nuclear industry and you get what looks and smells like a monopoly.  In Robert Alavarez’ No Nuclear Nirvana, he reports the two new nuclear reactors near Augusta, GA recently approved and licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC),

…has thrown a lifeline to Japan’s flagging nuclear power industry (along with an $8.3-billion U.S. taxpayer loan guarantee). Toshiba Corp. owns 87 percent of Westinghouse, which is slated to build the new reactors. Since U.S.-based nuclear power vendors disappeared years ago, all of the proposed reactors in this country are to be made by Japanese firms — Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and Hitachi — or Areva, which is mostly owned by the French government.

In a particularly cruel twist, Japan Steel Works Ltd. has emerged as the only plant in the world capable of forging the enormous reactor vessels, which contain this core, in a single piece.  Each nuclear reactor that is built contains a radioactive core, the same three cores, out of six, that melted down at Fukushima Daiichi and whose fall-out the people of Japan, and beyond, will grapple with for at least decades to comes.  The process is so cost and labor intensive that even now only a dozen or less reactor vessels are forged each year.  In a better saner world, perhaps Japan Steel Works would focus solely on creating its prized Samurai swords, collected at price tags of 1 million yen and up.  That might be more honorable.  Instead, our post-industrial world careens towards these catastrophes that are entirely man-made.

Compelling cases often replete with disinformation are made for the newest nuclear technologies available these days, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) and the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) among them.  Both are touted as posing fewer risks to man and nature.  Why then, in the U.S., does Washington assume liability for any catastrophic damages above $10.5 billion for accidents, having also taken on the responsibility for disposal of nuclear waste?  “The 1995 federal Energy Policy Act also provides loan guarantees for as much as 80% of the cost of new reactors and additional financial guarantees of up to $2 billion for costs arising from regulatory delays.”5   Why aren’t market forces allowed to do their work with regard to nuclear?  Clearly, our global yet specific needs for energy, as electricity, drive an incessant development that seduces some to demand the particularly risky option of nuclear energy only as long as it is subsidized by government.  And a chain of individuals with deep ties to the supply side of the nuclear equation ensure the politicians in office favor their position above more humane, and logical, choices.  Be forewarned, this is BIG business, where profit driven capitalists brazenly buy and corrupt even the staunchest democracies.  Ron Pitts, senior VP for nuclear operations at Fluor Corp, an Irving, Texas based construction and engineering company, estimates the cost of heavy forgings, steam generators, and pressurizers at $300 million to $350 million for each generating reactor unit.6

However futile it is to imagine reducing our energy needs, since certain populations increase at breakneck speed, we must immediately and collectively begin to reassess the ways in which we view development itself. This is the least we can do because apart from the ultimately unknowable and exorbitant purely monetary costs of actually building nuclear reactors, there are critical human and environmental factors that need to become priceless.   As a mother of two young girls, I can speak authoritatively maybe only about giving birth.  Whatever pain and magnificent exertion one undergoes in the natural birthing process, it is quickly forgotten once the newborn child suckles upon the breast.  And still, I cannot shake the feeling it seems facile to speak of life’s preciousness in a world where lives are carelessly trampled, oppressed, murdered, trafficked, contained, brutalized, repressed, tortured, marginalized, raped, threatened and devalued for so many, by so many, even if they are the few who hold power over all of us who do not possess it…yet.  Do we really need to add the enormous problems nuclear energy brings with it to a world already in need of so many repairs?

In the democratic experiment that is the United States, unknowing taxpayers help finance the development of nuclear technology as, “U.S. tax dollars have been and are being used for a system all but eliminating public input to get new ‘advanced’ nuclear power plants up and running—and fast.”7   Even the mainstream Washington Examiner has reported on how three of President Obama’s most intimate corporate friends – General Electric, Exelon and Duke Energy – are deeply involved in nuclear energy.  Obama’s nuclear ties are far too close for this mother’s comfort, as David Axelrod, his top political strategist, was a consultant to Exelon, the no. 2 nuclear company in the U.S.  John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, is well known to be a long time advocate of climate change legislation.   Timothy P. Carney, the Examiner’s senior political columnist disclosed, “In 2009, Forbes reported that if the Waxman-Markey climate legislation — supported by Obama — became law, “the present value of Exelon’s earnings stream would increase by $14 a share, or 28%.”8   The bill, intended to create a government imposed pseudo market in order to trade carbon offsets, stalled and died in the U.S. Senate in 2010, after passing in the House of Representatives in 2009.9

It is imperative that many people in all nations RISE UP, take a stand, and immediately pressure their governments, as well as industry, to consider nuclear energy and power as the human rights and environmental issue it primarily is.  The entire planet and large percentages of its population are at great risk in the event of accidents that cannot be predicted or, at times, prevented.  In light of the one-year anniversary of Fukushima Daiichi on March 11, let us honor the sanctity of this remarkable earth and the life it enables for us all so we can thrive while upon it.  Millions more of us should echo what Dr. John W. Gofman has said. “People have the right not to be aggressed against and used as guinea pigs in a massive human experiment.”10



3                          Ibid
4                          Ibid





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