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[cdn-nucl-l] Demise of Maine Yankee, a victim of uncertainties
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Sent: Monday, September 20, 2004 4:41 PM
Subject: [MbrExchange] EnLG 2004sep18 EDITORIAL: It would be worthwhile to
develop nuclear power again
EDITORIAL: It would be worthwhile to develop nuclear power again
Portland ME PRESS-HERALD September 18, 2004
On Friday, there was a rare moment of drama in the lingering demise of the
Maine Yankee nuclear power plant in Wiscasset. Its signature dome was
This wasn't the beginning of the end, nor was it the end itself. The spent
fuel from the reactor remains on site, stored in dry casks, awaiting a
permanent home with the U.S. Department of Energy.
What opponents are hoping for, however, is that the demise of Maine Yankee
and other reactors of similar vintage in recent years will come to symbolize
the end of nuclear power in the United States. If that's the case, it will
be to the detriment of our collective well-being. Nuclear power remains a
safe and environmentally sound way to generate electricity cheaply.
For now, however, the future of the nuclear power industry remains in doubt.
It's not because the technology has a poor track record in this country over
nearly a half a century. That's not because generating electricity this way
is too expensive - the remaining nuclear plants in New England are among the
cheapest producers of power in the region.
It's certainly not because nuclear power poses a threat to the environment,
either. On the contrary, nuclear power can be an important part of a
strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat global warming.
The one drawback to nuclear power, and it is a significant one, is finding
an appropriate means to dispose of the radioactive waste generated by the
plants. Such disposal can be carried out with a minimal amount of risk to
people and the environment, but not without risk to politicians.
Which is to say, nuclear power and the benefit of the relatively clean and
affordable electricity it generates, is held hostage not by the limits of
technology or economics, but by the politics of siting a disposal site and
regulating the construction of new plants.
FLAWED FROM THE START
The obstacles to further development of nuclear power trace their way back
to the industry's very beginnings. After the technology was successfully
employed by the Navy for use in submarines and ships, it was applied to the
commercial generation of electricity in the late 1950s.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, plants were being proposed around the
country, including in Maine. They would soon prove controversial, as many
people were uncomfortable with the risks associated with nuclear fission.
The risks were well-managed, however, and the power generated was relatively
cheap. What was not well-managed was the waste disposal issue.
The government has been trying to win final approval for a long-term
disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that idea continues to run
afoul of the political process. Presidential candidates seeking support in
that state have made a habit of hinting at their opposition to the
development of the site. Sen. John Kerry, the current Democratic nominee for
president, is the latest to do so.
Over time, the unknowns about disposal have translated into unknowns about
the cost of operating a nuclear power plant. Investors hate such
Also contributing to the perception of financial risk has been the fierce
opposition of anti-nuclear activists, which has made siting new reactors
As a result, no new nuclear power plants have been brought on line in this
country since 1980.
The final piece of uncertainty for the industry - and, according to Maine
Public Advocate Steve Ward, the one that brought down Maine Yankee - was
deregulation of the market for electric power generation.
When electric utilities were large companies with massive assets and
complete control of their markets from generation to delivery, the risks
associated with a big investment in nuclear power didn't seem so great.
Now that the industry is fractured, the political and disposal questions
surrounding nuclear power make a large investment in the technology too
burdensome. In the case of Maine Yankee, when it became clear that a massive
investment would be needed to keep it on line, its owners decided they could
no longer handle such risk and instead chose to shut it down.
BENEFITS ARE REAL
It's worth trying to lower the barriers to future development of nuclear
power because the benefits of doing so are clear. Nuclear power does not
contribute to global warming. It can reduce our dependence on foreign
sources of fuel. It can also provide cheaper power.
For that to happen, the federal government first has to provide a means for
disposal. The Yucca Mountain plan is a sound and safe one. With that in
place, the uncertainty over the cost of spent fuel disposal will disappear.
Objections from anti-nuclear activists will also require a political
response. President Bush's administration - or the Kerry administration,
should the senator win in November - should tie development of nuclear power
to an aggressive plan to reduce greenhouse gases. This will build a
constituency for this proven technology.
Maine Yankee fell victim to the uncertainties of the industry. Those
uncertainties remain today and prevent further investment in nuclear power.
Those uncertainties are political in nature, and they will have to be
addressed by government leaders who possess both courage and vision.