Testimony by Carl Zichella

Testimony of Carl Zichella
Regional Field Director, CA/NV/HI


December 10, 2007


Before the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications
The Honorable Christine Kehoe, Chair


Good afternoon. I am Carl Zichella, Regional Field Director for the California-Nevada-Hawaii Field office of the Sierra Club. I’d like to thank Chairperson Kehoe and the committee for the opportunity to address this important issue. Our organization has been opposed to nuclear power generation for 33 years.

Nuclear Power is a spectacularly flawed technology, and the energy marketplace is well aware of it. All of the major problems that plagued the industry in decades past persist: the technology is too expensive, it takes too long to build one, its byproducts are lethal, its operations dangerous; there is no solution to long term disposal of nuclear waste, and dealing with the waste as proponents suggest, with reprocessing, creates a huge security risk both for terror attack and proliferation. The steam generators in pressurized water reactors are arguably the largest component parts failure in U.S. Industrial history. We have seen them fail at nearly every single reactor in the U.S. They will cost some $700 million to replace at Diablo Canyon alone. To replace the steam generators at San Onofre, they may have to cut a hole in the reactor containment structure. Decommissioning a nuclear power plant is as expensive as building one in the first place, and that is assuming there is somewhere to ship the vast amounts of waste the process creates. Other than that, what’s not to like?

Despite the rhetoric about nuclear plant renaissance and reduced cost, etc. the actual record is not good.

From a recent report by Greenpeace on the economics of nuclear power published May 1, 2007: 

There are currently only 22 reactors under active construction in the world. The majority (17) are being constructed in Asia and 16 of the 22 are being built to Chinese, Indian or Russian designs. …

Construction started on five of the reactors over 20 years ago and consequently the likelihood of the reactors being built to their current timetable is open to question. There are a further 14 reactors on which construction has started but is currently suspended, 10 of which are in Central and Eastern Europe. This low level of nuclear construction provides little relevant experience on which to build confidence in cost forecasts.

Nuclear boosters insist that we must build nuclear power to forestall climate change, but I submit to you that this is unlikely at best, and not very bright. First of all, nuclear power is not an effective tool for climate change. It takes so long to build one (a decade seems to be the likeliest reasonable estimate, if everything goes right) that by the time enough were deployed to actually replace coal plants, it would be too late to make much of a difference.

Allow me to quote Vice president Gore, whose name is universally taken in vain by nuclear proponents:

“I doubt that they (nuclear plants) will play a significant role in most countries as a new source of electricity. The main reason for my skepticism about nuclear power playing a much larger role in the world's energy future is not the problem of waste disposal or the danger of reactor operator error, or the vulnerability to terrorist attack. Let's assume for the moment that all three of these problems can be solved. That still leaves two serious issues that are more difficult constraints. The first is economics; the current generation of reactors is expensive, take a long time to build, and only come in one size -- extra large. In a time of great uncertainty over energy prices, utilities must count on great uncertainty in electricity demand -- and that uncertainty causes them to strongly prefer smaller incremental additions to their generating capacity that are each less expensive and quicker to build than are large 1000 megawatt light water reactors. Newer, more scalable and affordable reactor designs may eventually become available, but not soon. Secondly, if the world as a whole chose nuclear power as the option of choice to replace coal-fired generating plants, we would face a dramatic increase in the likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation. During my 8 years in the White House, every nuclear weapons proliferation issue we dealt with was connected to a nuclear reactor program. Today, the dangerous weapons programs in both Iran and North Korea are linked to their civilian reactor programs. Moreover, proposals to separate the ownership of reactors from the ownership of the fuel supply process have met with stiff resistance from developing countries who want reactors. As a result of all these problems, I believe that nuclear reactors will only play a limited role.

Proponents should be more careful about glibly saying Mr. Gore supports more nuclear plants.

Secondly, we need to select the most effective tool we can to address climate change. We don’t have unlimited time or resources with which to address it. Common sense tells us that with global warming we ought to select the cleanest, cheapest, fastest and safest way of confronting it. In our own lives and homes we would not choose the dirtiest, most expensive, slowest, and most dangerous way of solving a problem. Why should we suspend our reason in addressing climate change? As Amory Lovins once famously said, “using nuclear reactors to boil water is the thermodynamic equivalent of using a chainsaw to cut butter.”

In the case of global warming we don’t always need to boil water to fight it, but if we choose to we can do it just fine with the sun. According to the BLM, there are more than 50 lease applications for solar thermal power plants in the Mojave Desert, which could supply approximately 10,000 Megawatts of electricity. That’s roughly a 25% increase in state generating capacity. There are also over 70 lease applications for wind developments on BLM lands. Solar thermal can be built faster than nuclear plants at a fraction of the cost. It can be used to provide the most expensive and critical power we need – peak power, because it can store the heat it generates during the day in media like molten salt that can be released later. There are an estimated 4,000-8,000 Megawatts of wind energy capacity under development at the Tehachapi wind resource area. That’s not chopped liver. And that does not take into account geothermal power to help balance the load on powerlines. Just this past week Oak Creek Wind Energy announced the largest single wind development California has ever seen; at approximately 1500 megawatts, it is positively nuclear in size.

Why should we use nuclear power to combat climate change when we have cleaner, cheaper faster, and safer alternatives we can pursue? Let’s say for the sake of argument that nuclear power is still on the table (in truth it has never been off, no one or nearly no one has wanted it). Wouldn’t we want to use as little of this most expensive and dangerous of all energy sources to meet our needs? If we conserve, become more efficient in our homes and businesses, employ renewable and relatively non-controversial means of generation that produce no long-lived and dangerous waste, that are not in and of themselves terror targets, the fuel for which is perpetually free, wouldn’t we be better off? Doing these things has the added benefit of saving money, generating wealth and creating high-road employment. Let’s say for the sake of argument that we did all this and then found we needed to do more. Wouldn’t we do the next cleanest, cheapest, fastest and safest things, and so on? Eventually we might get to nuclear power, but by then we would need far less of it, and we will have spent our limited resources in the most responsible and efficient way we could. We might even have the better reactor designs they have kept promising for the last several decades. Then again, given their record, maybe not.

Another question to consider: while venture capital is flooding into renewable energy sources, which in full disclosure rely on relatively modest tax credits, nuclear power would be deader than a doornail without federal subsidies. In the absence of grotesque subsidies, private capital shuns nuclear power. It is among the greatest of ironies that so-called budget hawks trumpet support for this technology. A recent commentary in Forbes magazine lays this contradiction bare. Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Dore (not exactly liberals) wrote in an article entitled “Hooked on Subsidies, Why conservatives should join the left's campaign against nuclear power, (November 26, 2007).”

“When it comes to politics, we don't often find ourselves in agreement with Bonnie Raitt or Graham Nash. But now that they are campaigning against new nuclear plants, they're our friends. Raitt, Nash, the Indigo Girls and other vocal rockers are attacking a provision in pending Senate legislation that would award what they call ‘massively expensive loan guarantees--potentially a virtual blank check from taxpayers’ for nuclear power plant construction.

Even without the new legislation there's plenty of federal money being doled out. In September NRG Energy, an energy wholesaler in Princeton, N.J., applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to build and operate a two-reactor nuclear plant near Bay City, Tex. The NRC is expecting 19 similar applications in the next 18 months. If approved, they will be eligible for loan guarantees under the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Pro-nuclear groups herald the coming flood of applications as proof that nuclear energy makes economic sense. Nonsense. The only reason investors are interested: government handouts. Absent those subsidies, investor interest would be zero.

A cold-blooded examination of the industry's numbers bears this out. Tufts economist Gilbert Metcalf concludes that the total cost of juice from a new nuclear plant today is 4.31 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's far more than electricity from a conventional coal-fired plant (3.53 cents) or "clean coal" plant (3.55 cents). When he takes away everyone's tax subsidies, however, Metcalf finds that nuclear power is even less competitive (5.94 cents per kwh versus 3.79 cents and 4.37 cents, respectively).

Nuclear energy investments are riskier than investments in coal- or gas-fired electricity. High upfront costs and long construction times mean investors have to wait years to get their money back. The problem here is not just the cost per watt, several times that of a gas plant, but the fact that nuclear plants are big. Result: The upfront capital investment can be 10 to 15 times as great as for a small gas-fired turbine. …”

Their point bolsters the aforementioned argument made by Vice President Gore. While renewable energy sources are admittedly expensive to build too, their fuel is free and their costs are going down very rapidly. Solar thermal developers believe they can knock a penny off every kilowatt of capacity they install each year, if they can get the power purchase agreements and modest tax credits in place to enable them to order their mirrors further in advance of construction, creating economies of scale. California is the Saudi Arabia of concentrating solar power. Wind developers, already cost competitive with coal think they can do likewise. Large scale PV projects believe they also can match these savings, and point to a steady decline in collector costs as proof. Why again do we “need” nuclear power?

Madame Chair, I find it very hard to understand why anyone would believe this industry’s claims. At the beginning they claimed their energy would be too cheap to meter and nuclear waste was a problem they would get to in the fullness of time. I call this the Scarlett O’Hara Syndrome: “We’ll worry about that tomorrow.” Now they tell us that all their problems are behind them and that they are the answer to global warming. But consider this. Virtually all of the 103 nuclear plants in the US are more than 20 years old, and many are 30 years old. That means they are approaching or have reached the end of their design lives. We will be using less nuclear power, not more, because we cannot possibly build them fast enough to replace the ones we are likely to have to shut down.

The Sierra Club believes that nuclear energy is a distraction in the deadly serious effort we must make to defeat global warming and avert the worst impacts humanity will face. Nuclear power cannot do the job. It is too costly, takes too long to deploy, is too controversial for most communities to accept; and is too fraught with waste disposal, proliferation and national security threats to be a serious contributor. We need to focus all our attention, innovation, investment and political will on deploying renewable energy supplies, and most importantly using all forms of power more efficiently. Nuclear power has had its day; that day is now over and it is time to move on.

Thank you for your consideration of our testimony.