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'Too cheap to meter'

Reflections on a little celebrated but often referenced anniversary



"Too cheap to meter" I practically whistle this jaunty refrain from the post-war era as I sit with checkbook and pen, paying my monthly electric bill. Full disclosure: I am single, live in a small house, and don't have an air conditioner, so my bill isn't that expensive. However, I live 11 miles from a nuclear reactor, and as I write this check, it is with some irony I note the date and recall this little celebrated but often referenced landmark in the history of nuclear power.

On Sept. 16, 1954, Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, uttered those famous words in a speech before the National Association of Science Writers: "It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter ." Of course, he also went on to mention many other hopes, like the ability to "travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds" and that future generations will "experience a lifespan far longer than ours." Happily, 50 years after Charles Lindbergh puttered across the Atlantic on a wing and a prayer, humans had visited the moon and a Parisian can for a reasonable price leave Paris after breakfast and be in New York for lunch. Fifty years ago, a computer equal to the laptop on which I type this would have required a building the size of Home Depot. These technologies have evolved into their promised hopes. Sadly, this has not been the case for nuclear power.

"Too cheap to meter?" How can it be when cost over-runs have been the rule at nuclear plants? Diablo Canyon itself ended up costing nearly 10 times its original estimates mostly due to errors in planning and construction. Is the situation any better with today's "newer" generation of reactors? Not so in Finland, where the French company Areva is already two years behind and over budget on the newest reactor faced with problems with the foundations and concrete mixtures safeguards that could never be left to chance on California's seismic landscape.

What other promises has the nuclear industry failed to deliver? How about an answer to the problem of high-level radioactive waste? Currently, nearly 55,000 tons of it with components needing to be shielded from the environment for a quarter of a million years is lining our rivers and shores. For decades, residents have been promised that the waste would be taken "somewhere" or treated with "some" process, none of which have materialized (for reasons both scientific and political). That's why California passed its landmark nuclear safeguards act in 1976, stating that no new reactors could be built in the state until a demonstrated and approved method for disposing of the radioactive waste was at hand.

It's an intractable problem, but not one that seems to have stopped an assembly member from submitting a ballot initiative to overturn California's moratorium on new nuclear power. Though it masqueraded cleverly as an answer to global warming, California's attorney general saw through this charade, and titled the initiative for what it for what it really is: REMOVAL OF PROHIBITIONS ON THE CONSTRUCTION OF NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS. What will this cost Californians? Read a little further in the fiscal analysis for the impact of this initiative:

"Potential, unknown financial exposure to the state in the long term, potentially in the millions of dollars in environmental cleanup costs at each new nuclear power plant site, and potentially in the billions of dollars in the event of a major radioactive release."

"Too cheap to meter?" Well, let's find out. In 2006, the legislature overwhelmingly passed AB 1632 (Blakeslee), which mandated our state's California Energy Commission (CEC) to do the first ever top-to-bottom full cost/risk/benefit analysis of nuclear power and determine whether it is in the state's best fiscal interest to continue to rely on our aging nuclear power plants. The study is under way, and taxpayers should let their assembly members know they support this prudent and far-sighted study.

And while I'm sealing the envelope on the electric bill, there are a few other letters I'm putting in the mail. I'm letting my U.S. senators know that I oppose the current federal energy bill, which includes billions of dollars in up to 100 percent loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. I'm also going to let the California Energy Commission know about some "cost" concerns I have for inclusion in their study, including evacuation and rebuilding expenses, should something go wrong. Readers can visit the website for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, www.a4nr.org, a clearinghouse for more information and action letters on this subject.

The nuclear power industry has had more than half a century to compete in our free market, and has failed to do so in spite of massive government subsidies subsidies that dwarf the amounts doled out to the renewable energy sector. In fact, had that kind of money been put into solar and wind research, we'd have a working and renewable energy system today without the waste, without the terror threats, without the seismic dangers. Utilities are spending a good deal of ratepayer money advertising their "clean energy" goals but is this merely greenwashing, or will they put their (and our) money where their hype is? Will these alternative energies live up to their promises? In a world of increasing problems and diminishing solutions, we'll never know if we don't allow them to compete on a fair and level playing field. Of this much I am sure: Through my kitchen window, the sun is shining. The wind is rustling the blinds. I can feel them both, and I'm willing to give them a chance.

David Weisman is a media producer and the outreach coordinator for the San Luis Obispo-based Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.

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