Learning from our Mistakes

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, August 7, 1998

Over two decades ago, eleven years before Millstone III nuclear power plant in Waterford, Connecticut went on line, I testified as a private citizen to the Department of Public Utilities Control that building another Millstone didn't make economic sense for the average citizen, or for society as a whole. I pointed out some of the hidden costs of nuclear power and touted the financial benefits of conservation and direct use of the sun's energy to satisfy our needs. Northeast Utilities, backed by reactor manufacturers, extolled atomic energy as cheap, reliable and safe. The utility company and the state's regulators could have saved us all a lot of money and worry if they had listened then.

At that time, environmentalists and the nuclear industry argued about whether people living near or downwind of the plants would be more vulnerable to cancer, whether "perfect" operating conditions with no human or mechanical errors were possible, whether the plants would fail catastrophically, and if radioactive wastes could be safely stored. The accumulated evidence proves that environmentalists were right about most of these issues. Yet, it is economics which turned out to be the downfall of nuclear power.

Millstone III was restarted last month after a costly two-year shutdown to address safety problems and concerns about Northeast Utilities' attitude toward its employees, particularly whistle blowers. In June, 1996, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ranked Millstone III in the category reserved for the worst nuclear plants in the nation. Plant number III, representing an investment of two-and-one-half billion dollars, is the largest of three nuclear plants operated by Northeast Utilities on that site. The other two reactors on Millstone Point remain shut down. By the end of this year, NU hopes to restart Unit II, which was ranked the third worst plant in the country before it closed in 1996. NU recently announced plans to decommission Unit I, twelve years before the end of its license. Unit I is simply not worth fixing.

Building these very expensive, high-tech, centralized nuclear power stations was obviously a big mistake. Power companies, reactor makers and government regulators all encouraged our society's enormous investment in this unreliable and dangerous technology. Nuclear-generated electricity (once advertised as "too cheap to meter") now costs about twice as much as energy from other sources, and is many times more expensive than conservation. About one-fourth of our electricity bill pays for the cost of the Millstone units, even when they're not producing any electricity. Under deregulation, all electricity users in Connecticut will continue to pay for those failed plants for a long time to come.

In just the last two years, these non-functioning plants have cost NU and its shareholders over a billion dollars for replacement power and extra operating and maintenance costs. The problems on Millstone Point devalued NU's stock, forced it to suspend paying dividends and lowered ratings on its debt securities.

Nine smaller electric companies which are non-operating owners of Millstone III, recently took legal action against NU for "an arrogant game of brinkmanship with the NRC."

And, the problems of decommissioning toxic reactors and disposing of radioactive wastes still remain. Both of these challenges are likely to be expensive and will wind up on the taxpayer's tab.

We should learn from our mistakes. These nuclear plants were built to generate enormous amounts of cheap electricity. It is painfully clear now that these exorbitantly expensive and dangerous power plants were a big mistake that all of us will be paying for, with our electric bills and with our taxes, into the foreseeable future.

Now, the same folks who brought us nuclear power are back with another "get-rich-quick" scheme for clean, cheap electricity we can buy. The utilities are smaller, the reactor builders want to sell large, natural-gas-gulping turbines, and the regulators call it deregulation. Milford, Oxford and Bristol are among the local towns targeted for these units.

These plants will burn great quantities of natural gas, a limited fossil fuel resource. Almost half of the heat produced by burning the gas will escape directly to the environment, and lots of water will be needed for cooling. All of this, to give us the illusion that we can continue to increase our electricity consumption. Conservation and direct use of the sun's energy are still much better solutions.

If we don't learn from history, we'll be truly sorry.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1998 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.