Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big advocate of nuclear power. I just published a book called Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey and 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.
But after listening to both sides of the argument, I’ve made another decision. I think the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should deny a license renewal to the 650-megawatt Oyster Creek Nuclear Reactor in southern New Jersey, the license for which is scheduled to expire today. And then let’s see what happens.
The NRC should also think careful before relicensing the 620-MW Vermont Yankee plant in southern Vermont — and Indian Point Units1 and 2, which provide 2,000 MW in Westchester Country, just north of New York City. Oyster Creek generates 12 percent of New Jersey’s electricity, the two Indian Point reactors provide 25 percent of New York and Westchester’s electricity and Vermont Yankee provides nearly all of Vermont’s electricity, making it the cleanest state in the country. (Coal-rich Wyoming emits more air pollution in a day than Vermont produces in a year.)
Closing all four reactors, of course, would devastate both the environment and the economy of the whole Northeast. But the point is this. All four of these are aging reactors 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 start new construction. Who wouldn’t be when existing reactors are making more than a million dollars a day? Nuclear electricity is nearly competitive with coal and natural gas and the economics can only get better if the Obama administration imposes 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 without shutting down.
Closing Oyster Creek, Vermont Yankee, and Indian Point, of course, would leave the entire Northeast importing electricity at exorbitant prices from who-knows-where along transmission lines that haven’t been built. Of the 5 million megawatt-hours of electricity generated last year in New Jersey, 3 million came from nuclear reactors — 675,000 of them from Oyster Creek. The state would have to fire up every aging coal boiler, or suffer summer brownouts.
New York City and Westchester would suffer a much worse fate without Indian Point, and Vermont would go from being the cleanest state to one of the dirtiest without Vermont Yankee. For years I’ve argued that the easiest way to absorb the loss of these reactors would be for everyone give up air conditioning, but that’s not likely to happen.
Anti-nuclear activists dream that nuclear and coal can be replaced by wind, solar, and other “renewable” things. That’s because nobody has seen what these plants would 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, New Jersey would have to cover 300 square miles of land or ocean with 45-story windmills. Even then, they’d only work when the wind blows, which is about one-third of the time. To replace just one of Indian Point’s reactors, you’d have to cover every square inch of Westchester County or Long Island Sound. Windmills would work blanketing Vermont’s Green Mountains, but then the state could likely kiss its fall-foliage tourism goodbye.
Solar collectors face the same problem. In New York and New England, you could rely on them only for summertime peak loads, since there are too many cloudy days the rest of the year. California had big plans to build 500 MW of solar capacity in the Mojave Desert — until California Senator Diane Feinstein announced two weeks ago she would seek legislation banning solar collectors from the Mojave, with nature groups having suddenly realized what a 25- to 30-square-mile facility would 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., the most visible and vocal opponent of nuclear power in the New York metropolitan area, also opposes wind farms in Long Island Sound and off Cape Cod (where he summers). Breakthroughs in extracting natural gas from shale deposits have opened the possibility that the Northeast can once again become a producing area, but Kennedy’s group, Riverkeeper — the leading opponent of Indian Point — is already opposing that, as well.
Veterans of the nuclear industry say they are very concerned that relying on aging reactors like Vermont Yankee, 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 for these reactors long ago.
So it’s time to call the opponents’ bluff. Let’s close Oyster Creek, Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee and see what life is really like without nuclear power.
– William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey.