In what may be the worst piece of legislation the Senate has passed in decades (and they've had some whoppers), the Senate voted last week for a huge corporate boondoggle that will not only help bankrupt our country but will guarantee long-term environmental damage, a rise in cancer rates, and thousands of years of monitoring of toxic and radioactive waste. They did this without a single public hearing, without a debate, and without much of a conscience.
The energy bill is a major attack on our country and the world's future. First, it authorizes the spending of taxpayer dollars to help build six or more new nuclear reactors -- reactors that the utilities couldn't afford to build on their own. The utilities and proponents of nuclear power would have us believe that, per megawatt, nuclear power is the cheapest and the cleanest form of energy available.
In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the last five commercial reactors cost 11 times as much to build per kilowatt as natural-gas plants. Furthermore, they aren't at all responsible for the cost of long-term storage of the nuclear waste they create -- waste that will have to be stored, monitored, and maintained for the next 100,000 years.
Mind-boggling, considering that all of recorded human history is only a fraction of that time. Imagine your reaction if your annual tax bill carried a surcharge to maintain toxic waste left behind by Ptolemy II and Nebuchadnezzar.
Worse, the bill indefinitely extends the Price-Anderson Act, passing on the liability for accidents at nuclear plants to the very people who will suffer the consequences -- you and me. George Woodwell, one of the preeminent scientists in America today, recently pointed out that if it weren't for Price-Anderson, there wouldn't be a single commercial nuclear reactor in the U.S., because they couldn't afford the insurance. As it stands, reactor operators are required to carry $200 million of liability coverage per reactor; damages beyond that amount are passed on to the taxpayer.
Ironically, in a 1992 study by Sandia National Labs, commissioned in the wake of the Three Mile Island near-meltdown, the cost of damage from a single nuclear accident is estimated to range as high as $560 billion. Who pays? We do.
But that's not all. Behind curtain number three is a pilot pebble bed nuclear reactor. The utilities call pebble bed reactors "inherently safe," because if they loose their coolant, they don't melt down. In fact, say the utilities, they are so safe that the engineers don't believe they need containment structures. Of course, if the graphite coatings on the "pebbles" are exposed to, say, oxygen, they'll catch on fire, which is precisely what caused most of the radiation exposure from Chernobyl. But don't worry, say the utilities: It's "inherently safe." If so, why do taxpayers need to substantially bear the burden of liability in case of accidents?
Let's not forget that if the 9/11 hijackers had taken a detour and crashed into the Indian Point reactor cooling pool (they flew right over it), they would likely have killed 100,000 people instead of 3,000 if the wind was blowing in the right direction.
Outraged yet? Keep reading. The bill, a godsend to the utilities, authorizes the pilot construction of a nuclear plant to produce hydrogen for fuel cells. Forget that we can produce hydrogen with wind power at almost no cost; instead, the Bush administration has in store a plan to build hundreds of nuclear plants to produce hydrogen. We'll have clean power for our cars, at the price of hundreds of millions of tons of nuclear waste spread all over the country. How helpful is that? In fact, this plan is simply a backdoor to build more nuclear plants while they posture at being environmentally friendly.
This isn't just about us. It's about our children and their children, going forward to all future generations. For some perspective, Julius Caesar was assassinated by disgruntled senators a mere 2,000 years ago. By law, we have to maintain and protect the waste produced by these plants for 50 times that. The entire sweep of human history pales in comparison to the time this stuff will be around, leaking into the environment, causing cancer and birth defects and possibly extinction. It won't reach its peak radioactivity for another 100,000 years.
I hope those campaign contributions from the energy companies make the senators who voted for this bill feel better, because countless future generations will be cursing them, giving this Senate its own brand of immortality. It's not a legacy I'd want to live with.
Charles Sheehan-Miles is executive director of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and the author of Prayer at Rumayla: A Novel of the Gulf War.