Right now there probably isn’t a bigger advocate of nuclear power in the country than I am. I’ve just published a book, Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey and now spend my time touring the country trying to convince people nuclear is the best thing that could happen for the environment and debating those who want to see it banned from the planet.Yet after listening to both sides of the argument, I’ve made another decision. I think we should close both Oyster Creek, which provides 12 percent of New Jersey’s electricity, and Indian Point, which provides 25 percent of the electricity consumed in New York and Westchester County. Both are currently applying for 20-year extensions of licenses first issued in the late 1960s and early 1970s and both are meeting strong opposition from environmental groups. The Nuclear Regulatory is set to make a ruling on Oyster Creek this Thursday (April 9) and Indian Point’s two reactor licenses will expire in 2013 and 2015.
Why do I think all three reactors should be closed? Because all are aging plants whose growing vulnerability risks strangling the current nuclear revival in its cradle. There are now applications for 26 new reactors before the NRC and the industry is straining to get started on new construction. Existing reactors, after all, are already making a million dollars a day. Their economics can only improve if coal is made more expensive by a national carbon regime. Safety and operating procedures at nuclear reactors have improved so much since Three Mile Island that they now run nearly two years at a time before shutting down briefly for refueling.
Closing Oyster Creek and Indian Point, of course, would devastate the Metropolitan area’s economy. Of 5 million megawatt-hours of electricity generated in New Jersey last year, 675,000 came from Oyster Creek. The state will have to import electricity at much higher prices than it pays today. New Jersey will have to fire up aging coal boilers or suffer regular brownouts. New York and Westchester would suffer a much worse fate without Indian Point. For years I’ve argued that the easiest way for both states to make up for the loss of power would be for everybody give up air conditioning, but that’s not likely to happen.
The dream of the anti-nuclear activists is that both nuclear and coal are going to be replaced by wind, solar and other things that are “renewable.” That’s because nobody has yet seen what these plants are going to look like. A 45-story windmill produces 1 megawatt of electricity. Windmills must be spaced several hundred feet apart so they don’t interfere with each other. To replace Oyster Creek’s 650 megawatts you’d have to cover about 300 square miles of the state with 45-story windmills. Even then, they’d only work when the wind blows, which is about one-third of the time.
Solar collectors face the same problem. In the Metropolitan area you could only rely on them for summer peaking power since there are too many cloudy days. In California, however, there are big plans to build 500-MW solar installations in the Mojave Desert. That’s why California Senator Diane Feinstein announced last week she would propose a ban on solar installations in the Mojave - because nature groups have suddenly realized what these 25-30-square-mile facilities will do for the desert environment.
It’s the same everywhere. Environmentalists will support any form of energy generation as long as it’s over the horizon. Once it comes into view, however, they find it objectionable. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., perhaps the most vocal and visible opponent of nuclear power in the Metropolitan area is also opposing wind farms in Long Island Sound and off Cape Cod. Breakthroughs in extracting for natural gas from shale deposits have opened the possibility that the Northeast can once again become a producing area, but Riverkeeper, the leading opponent of Indian Point, is already opposing that as well.
Veterans of the nuclear industry I talk to say they are very concerned that relying on aging reactors like Oyster Creek and Indian Point is eventually going to lead to an accident, which will kill nuclear power in this country forever. What they want instead is new construction incorporating all the technological and safety improvements that have been made since we stopped building reactors in the 1980s. We should have built replacements a long time ago.
So it’s time to call the opponents’ bluff. Let’s close both Oyster Creek and Indian Point and see what life without nuclear power is really like.
William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Long Energy Odyssey.