SPECIAL REPORT

FALL FROM GRACE

High-cost nuclear power loses popularity

RAE CORELLI August 25 1997
SPECIAL REPORT

FALL FROM GRACE

High-cost nuclear power loses popularity

RAE CORELLI August 25 1997

FALL FROM GRACE

SPECIAL REPORT

High-cost nuclear power loses popularity

On the north shore of Long Island, roughly 100 km east of New York City, sits the huge and forbidding concrete pile of the Shoreham Nuclear Generating Station. The plant sits more or less in the middle of a 30hectare site defined by a high steel fence on three sides; Long Island Sound is on the fourth. The guards at the gate have little to do because the Shoreham station, finished in 1988 at a cost of $7 billion, was decommissioned shortly after and has never cranked out a single kilowatt of electricity. For the ratepayers of Long Island, stuck with the lion’s share of the bill,

Shoreham is primarily an ugly reminder of bureaucratic bungling. For the world at large, it could also be a symbol of the nuclear power industry’s steep and continuing fall from grace.

Across North America and Western Europe, many governments and utilities are returning to more conventional methods of producing electricity because of the soaring cost of nuclear power, the real or potential hazards posed by the plants that produce it and widespread claims of managerial ineptitude. Shoreham is mute evidence of all

three concerns. Planned, designed and built over a 20-year period by the Long Island Lighting Co., known to residents of the area as Lilco, the generating station was to have had a capacity of 1,100-megawatts, enough to power a city of 800,000. Soon after its completion, crews fired up the reactor for a test run that lasted one day. Testing never resumed because then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo refused to approve the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s plan for evacuating the area in the event of an accident. Because the Long Island Expressway is the only escape route, says Scott Denman, executive director of the Washington-based Safe Energy Communication Council, a public interest group, “the fact is that you simply cannot evacuate Long Island.” And because Shoreham’s innards had been irradiated,

the cost of taking the reactor apart was $400 million more than it would have been before the test.

Nuclear power’s sagging popularity is amply demonstrated elsewhere. As of Jan. 1, 1996, Denman said, only four countries—France, Japan, India and South Korea—were building two or more new reactors. In total, only 34 nuclear power plants were under construction around the world, “which is the fewest in more than a quarter-century.” Of those 34, 17 were in Asia and Africa. Meanwhile, Denman said, at least 84 nuclear generating stations have been shut down globally because of technical and other problems. Germany, for example, has abandoned 17 plants and kept only 19. The number currently operating worldwide—roughly 430—is expected to drop to fewer than 340 early in the next century. “The problem is that the industry basically went from zero to 60 in the span of a decade and a half through the ’60s and middle ’70s,” Denman said. “It was tremendously complicated technology, jumpstarted into the marketplace by people who had no background in dealing with the problems they would face.” The cost of nuclear power figures largely among those problems and a comparison with other fuels is revealing. An energy source is generally regarded as efficient if it costs no more than five cents per kilowatt-hour on a customer’s bill. Hydroelectric power tends to cost from two to eight cents; gas, from three to five cents; coal, five to six cents; oil, six to eight cents and nuclear, 10 to 12 cents. While those calculations are based on the U.S. experience, experts say that the ratios

would be about the same in most other Western countries. Although simple economics may shape the nuclear future, fear is also a factor. Probably no one knows exactly how many nuclear mishaps have occurred in the past half-century—or how many people have died as a result—but published accounts suggest there have been dozens. The memories of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl will perhaps in the end have as much to do with the fate of nuclear power as anything else. Yet on Long Island, Shoreham, technologically disemboweled, offers only opportunity. One proposal is to turn its deep-water harbor into a terminal for a ferry service across the Sound to Connecticut.

RAE CORELLI