UC Berkeley Scientists Remain Bullish on Nuclear Power

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 14, 2008

After Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nobody’s thinking of nuclear power in the U.S. these days, right? 

Wrong—and UC Berkeley’s at the forefront of the drive to bring back nuclear, this time in the guise of a clean, green technology. 

For residents of the United States, the March 28, 1979 accident at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant that led to a release of radioactive gases and a partial reactor meltdown spelled the end of a once-booming commercial reactor business. 

That the accident followed just 12 days after a popular film about a reactor system failure—The China Syndrome—helped seal the fate of an industry. 

Then came the April 26, 1986 disaster at the Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, when an explosion caused by a runaway reactor send a cloud of deadly dust and gases spewing over the heart of the Eurasian land mass. 

Today, California has only two nuclear power plants, one at Diablo Canyon near Eureka in the north and the other at San Onofre on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. 

A third plant, Rancho Seco, south of Sacramento, was built by the same company, Babcock & Wilcox, that built Three Mile Island and was shut down three years after the Pennsylvania disaster after an advisory referendum by Sacramento voters call for closure. 

The plant had suffered repeated equipment failures, and had been shut down more frequently than it was on-line. 

But all that is in the past, said two nuclear scientists and an economist during a session on nuclear power at last week’s UC Berkeley Energy Symposium. The lone dissenting voice came from another physicist, Thomas Cochran, senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council’s nuclear program. 

For the three proponents—Robert Budnitz, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Per Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the university, and Stanford economist Geoffrey Rothwell—nuclear power has an important, though minor, role to play in the fight against global warming. 

But for Cochran, the controversial technology is a financial black hole for taxpayers, requiring $13 billion in federal subsidies over the lifetime of a single plant, and posing the threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

“We will build as many as the U.S. government is willing to subsidize,” he said, thanks to the efforts of the nuclear industry’s lobbyists. 

Peterson said that delays of past decades had been resolved. In the 1980s, companies “had enormous problems getting their plants built on time,” and once built plants were faced with operational problems that kept them in shutdown mode 40 percent of the time. 

By the 1990s, he said, plants were running 90 percent of the time, and were forced to close only two percent of the time, and the remainder was spent primarily in refueling. 

And the dangers of nuclear waste? Overblown, he said, and much more tightly regulated than dangerous chemical wastes. 

Budnitz said that in 1986 when Diablo Canyon went on-line, nuclear plants around the country were logging between 500 and 700 scrams, or emergency shutdowns, every year. In 2007, he said, the total was 10, and most emergencies arose from human error because modern equipment had become much more reliable. 

While the two Berkeley scientists and the Stanford economist dismissed the subsidies of little practical importance, Cochran said, “They left the implication that this was a good idea. This is the mantra of the industry.” 

But among the companies receiving subsidies has been Exelon, the country’s largest nuclear power company and the world’s third largest, with revenues of $14 billion and over $1 billion in profit, “where the CEO makes $10 million a year.” 

Another nuclear economic power, GE, is the world’s second largest company, with assets valued at over $400 billion. “To subsidize those companies is just crazy,” Cochran said. 

Exelon has also figured in the Democratic president race, with Hillary Clinton’s campaign criticizing the Barack Obama team for taking $227,000 in donations from Exelon employees, while Burson Marsteller, the firm whose CEO is Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, has been paid $230,000 to lobby for a new nuclear plant in New Jersey. 

While the three proponents contended that even with subsidies, there won’t be a nuclear reactor boom at home, Peterson said government subsidies were appropriate if policy-makers wanted “to pull new technology into the market.” 

With an administration in Washington that has rejected taxes on carbon as evil, subsidies are appropriate, said Rothwell. “They haven’t even noticed that the climate has changed,” he said. 

But Cochran said subsidies distract policymakers from “the quickest way to solve that problem, which is to cap carbon. 

“NRDC’s highest priority is capping carbon,” he said, adding that restricting the primary culprit in global warming wasn’t even a priority of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the commercial reactor industry’s trade group, until he badgered them into adopting a carbon cap policy two years ago. 

The bottom-line concern of the NRDC remains nuclear proliferation, in which reactors play a central role. Current international safeguards are simply not adequate to the task of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.