Thursday, December 13, 2007

We're Getting Nukes

Well by we I mean Texas and by nukes I mean a pair of new nuclear reactors. NRG applied to build two new plants next to two other plants they operate near Bay City, Texas. I also wrote an 8 page paper on the topic for my Political Ideas and Ideologies class. I like the topic, but going out of my way to integrate it into our class materials was a serious pain in the butt. Our professor didn’t care if we used Wikipedia for our paper, as long as it wasn’t our primary information source. I used one page of it as one of 34 sources for this 8 page paper. If you don’t want to read it I wouldn’t recommend it. If you do want something really boring to read here it is:

On March 28, 1979, Reactor 2 at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station breached, releasing radioactive gasses into the atmosphere. Although no one was killed or injured in the accident, the fear of a nuclear catastrophe was now on people’s minds. Since that incident no applications to build new nuclear plants had been filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) until this year. In June of 2006, NRG Energy Incorporated filed a letter of formal intent to the NRC to build two new reactors at the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station near Bay City, Texas to accompany the two existing reactors at the same site. On September 24, 2007 NRG filed the first formal application for the construction of a new nuclear power plant since 1979. This is believed to be the first of dozens of new applications to be filed in the U.S. by the end of the decade.
These two new nuclear reactors have reopened the national debate over nuclear power, historically considered by many to be impractical and overly expensive. Classic questions of nuclear safety have been largely overshadowed by questions about carbon emissions. Costs of construction have been overshadowed by talk of the historically high oil prices. Talk of radioactive materials is overshadowed by talk of nuclear proliferation. What isn’t being talked about as much are the ramifications of having two new fission reactors being built in Bay City, Texas.
The people with the most at stake in this debate are the citizens of Southern Texas. The residents are the ones who will be living in proximity to the new reactors. The vast majority of the power generated from these reactors will be sold within the region to the local residences and businesses. In the event of a nuclear disaster the local citizens may suffer the possible chance of adverse affects caused by the nightmarish scenario. These are the people who are funding the construction by paying their utility bills. These are the people who will live in the shadow of the new reactors. These are the people whose voices should carry the most weight in any debate on the matter.
The question is whether the decision to build new nuclear reactors should rest primarily with those who are directly affected by building new base-load power plants, either nuclear or coal. John Borland (2007) wrote an article in Wired Magazine about author Gwyneth Cravens, a former nuclear protester, who has become a strong proponent of nuclear energy. Borland quotes her as saying:
I used to think we surely could do better. We could have more wind farms and solar. But I then learned about base-load energy, and that there are three forms of it: fossil fuels, hydro and nuclear. In the United States, we're maxed out on hydro. That leaves fossil fuels and nuclear power, and most of the fossil fuel burned is coal.
In the U.S., 24,000 people a year die from coal pollution. Hundreds of thousands more people suffer from lung and heart disease directly attributable to coal pollution.
Given the need for reliable, base-load power, people such as Cravens argue that nuclear power is the best we can do at this point in time. The heavy pollution from burning coal and other fossil fuels perpetuates the fears of acid rain and heavy carbon emissions, both of which environmentalists want to immensely reduce.
Even though the most catastrophic nuclear disaster in U.S. history (Three Mile Island) didn’t harm or kill a single person, many people are still fearful of nuclear power plants. John Dryzek comments in The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses, “[People] tend to have a low tolerance for low-probability catastrophic events (such as the meltdown of a nuclear reactor), and so overestimate the risks from them.”(2005) These fears must be addressed because the citizens need to be able to feel safe and secure in their daily lives. This ties into Andrew Heywood’s discourse of Conservative ideology on security. Heywood’s claim is that Conservatives “believe that human beings are…security-seeking creatures, drawn to the known, the familiar, the tried and tested.”(2007) Thus employing a relatively new technology, which harnesses the power of matter itself, will definitely make most people uneasy until they are able to learn the facts about what is being proposed in their backyard.
For the citizens of the Bay City area, the proposal of building a pair of new nuclear reactors is not a terrifying prospect. They have the information and knowledge they need in order to know that their lives suffer little risk of being contaminated by a nuclear disaster. According to Wikipedia, the residents already have two of the world’s largest nuclear reactors located at the same site where the new reactors are being proposed. Even residents of neighboring Victoria County are petitioning energy company Exelon Nuclear to build a new nuclear plant in their county (Triplett, 2007). As the population grows the need for an increase of base-power generation also increases. The fear of adding another pair of nuclear power plants doesn’t appear to exist in the Bay City area.
A huge factor in the construction of new reactors is the costs involved. According to Wikipedia, the two existing nuclear plants currently operating in the South Texas Project cost roughly $5.5 billion to build and bring online. Thus the immense capital costs involved in the construction of nuclear plants make them among the most expensive of all power generating stations. Unlike the costs of traditional power plants fueled by coal, gas, or oil; nuclear fuel is an insignificant cost of operating the plant. CNN Money writer, Steve Hargreaves (2007), indicates the cost of enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear reactor is only 28% of the total operating cost of the plant. The two main costs of running a nuclear plant are the amortization of the huge capital investment made during its construction and the salaries of those who operate the facility. By having relatively stable operating costs, consumers are assured that their utility bills will not fluctuate wildly with the whims of the fuel markets. The rising and uncertain costs of oil and other fossil fuels only make nuclear power more attractive to those concerned about unstable prices of electricity.
When analyzing the costs of building new power plants we must also look beyond the financial costs. We need to look at the human costs and the environmental costs as well. The financial costs of building a coal power plant pale in comparison to the costs involved in constructing a nuclear plant. But the costs of operating a coal plant are much higher both economically and environmentally. Whereas nuclear plants are relatively cheap to fuel, almost all of a coal plant’s operating expenses come from buying and burning coal by the trainload. Unfortunately most of the coal that is burned ends up in the atmosphere. Coal smoke contains ash, soot, greenhouse gases, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, uranium, and thorium. A typical coal power plant releases more radioactive material into the atmosphere than all of the world’s nuclear plants combined. With such heavy pollution coming from our coal power plants, most environmentalists are screaming for alternatives.
According to his editorial in the Austin American-Statesman, Bruce Hight points out that environmentalist groups have protested and successfully lobbied to stop eight of eleven proposed coal power plants from being built in Texas in recent years (2007). He goes on to point out that environmental groups such as Environmental Defense and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen are vehemently opposed to the production of coal power plants due to their toxic emissions which are harmful to both humans and the environment. Public Citizen is also equally opposed to nuclear power and is horrified that NRG is planning two new reactors anywhere, much less in Southern Texas. Hight also quotes a different opinion from Jim Marston, spokesman for Environmental Defense, as saying “‘Environmental Defense might – reluctantly – consider nuclear power. But not coal plants’” for adding needed base-power to the electrical grid. Environmental groups are in consensus that current coal technology is too dirty and inefficient for a 21st century world. The debate is whether nuclear is an acceptable alternative to higher polluting power plants.
Nuclear power, together with wind and solar power, are generally considered to be pollutionless sources of energy. The only harmful byproduct of nuclear power generation is its spent fuel. On the NEI Nuclear Notes blog, Eric McErlain (2007) quotes a statistic from Gwyneth Cravens concerning spent nuclear fuel:
A family in four in France, where they reprocess nuclear fuel, would produce only enough waste to fit in a coffee cup over a whole lifetime. A lifetime of getting all your electricity from coal-fired plants would make a single person's share of solid waste (in the United States) 68 tons, which would require six 12-ton railroad cars to haul away. Your share of CO2 would be 77 tons.
The spent fuel still needs to be disposed of in a safe manner. The consensus on how to dispose of this spent fuel is to simply bury it. Large disposal sites such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada are being built to store thousands of tons of nuclear waste a thousand feet underground in steel casks where they will remain safely for thousands of years. These sites are funded by taxes imposed on the sale of electricity from all current nuclear plants in the country.
Most editorials and blog posts we found relating to the two new NRG reactors were overwhelmingly in favor of reviving the nuclear industry. Deliberative democracy is intended to give everyone a voice in matters concerning their own lives and the digital age now gives everyone an ability to express their opinions to the world. We fully expected to find strong opposition for these new reactors like there was in the past from environmentalist and “not in my backyard” groups who did not want the nuclear reactors where they were built. Without any way to deliberate in an open forum such as the internet and letters to the editor, the individuals opposing the nuclear reactors would be relegated from “citizen” status to “subject” status by Barbara Cruikshank (2007) because they would not have any meaningful voice in what affects their lives. Unlike citizens, who have both a voice and a role to play in their government, subjects have neither, being subject to those who have the power, with no voice in matters concerning them.
Other forums, such as town hall meetings, would also give people an opportunity to become more informed about the issue at hand, as well as voice any concerns and objections they may feel toward having two new reactors built. Iris Young (1996) describes these meetings in her writings as a place where “Greeting, rhetoric, and storytelling are forms of communication that in addition to argument contribute to political discussion.” There must be places where people can discuss more than just hard facts and statistics when discussing large issues. People must feel connected to their communities and involved with what takes place around them. It’s apparent from reading local news articles that the vast majority of people are welcoming to the prospect of a second pair of nuclear reactors in their region. The people who are not as open to the idea are largely ignored when the press are covering this issue. The forums of deliberation proposed by Young would be a way for those whose voices are largely unheard to be recognized and listened to as individuals in need of expressing their views.
NRG’s plans to build these nuclear plants have sparked a debate, not merely in Southern Texas, but throughout the country. The U.S. government is currently involved only by the actions of the NRC; however, other agencies are sure to become involved. The Environmental Protection Agency is also likely to step into the picture once the NRC has approved the construction. The U.S. Department of Energy also has a stake in this matter as they issue guidelines for all power generation within the country.
NRG’s applications for the first new reactors in decades will determine the future of power generation in the U.S. If the applications are approved, the precedent will pave the way for as many as thirty-two new reactor applications to be completed by the end of 2009 (NRC, 2007). If the applications are rejected, the future of nuclear power in the U.S. may be finished. Groups from all over the country are scrambling to lobby Congress with their positions on the issue. Many people and groups are relieved that nuclear power will get another chance in the 21st century. These people will quickly point out that France, Japan, and China are scrambling to build new nuclear reactors in order to increase their power generating capacity without increasing their CO2 emissions. Other groups quickly point to the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and fear that a similar event will happen on U.S. soil. They will oppose all prospects of building a new nuclear reactor anywhere in the country.
The only certainty in the debate over building new nuclear reactors is that the country will need more base-load capacity soon. The U.S. population will soon reach one-third of a billion residents and those residents will require reliable, cost-effective, and clean sources of electricity. Wind, solar, and tidal generation stations can alleviate much of the anticipated power demand, but they cannot provide the constant output of electricity needed twenty-four hours per day. The nuclear power industry is promising that their technology is the best solution to the anticipated needs of the country. This debate will continue long after NRG’s two proposed reactors are either rejected or constructed.

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