SACE’s High Risk Energy Choices Director, Sara Barczak, contributed to this blog post.
In April, I returned to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s annual DC Days event. I joined activists from all over the country who actively work to increase the safety, transparency, and accountability of the nuclear energy industry and nuclear weapons complex. Every year, I learn something new. The nugget I gleaned this year has to do with the oft-discussed sequester and the seldom discussed nuclear-related line items in the federal budget.
While everyone these days seems to decry government spending, few people seem to realize that spending on nuclear energy programs is increasing. Two noteworthy examples of nuclear pork that impact the Southeast are small modular reactors (SMRs) and plutonium bomb fuel, or mixed-oxide fuel (MOX). SMRs have recently earned a line item of over $450 million from the Department of Energy (DOE), given to companies designing these experimental reactors. This taxpayer boondoggle earned DOE the “Golden Fleece” award this year from Taxpayers for Common Sense. The first proposal is for SMRs designed by Babcock & Wilcox at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s long-abandoned, failed Clinch River breeder reactor site in Tennessee. You can read more about the dangers of SMR’s on our Learn About page.
Plutonium bomb fuel or MOX is one of the many places that the nuclear energy and weapons complex intersect. The program was proposed as a way to “de-weaponize” surplus plutonium from retired nuclear bombs. While this may sound like a noble cause, plans to create experimental fuel for nuclear reactors from this weapons-grade plutonium are ill-conceived, dangerous and very expensive. Take for example the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility that is currently under construction at the Department of Energy’s sprawling Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina. Original cost estimates for facility construction were $1.6 billion with operation beginning in 2007. Current cost estimates are $7.7 billion with facility operation in 2019. That is a seven-fold increase in cost and a 12 year delay! Any private project would likely have been cancelled by now, but it would seem normal business practices don’t apply when U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for the skyrocketing costs.
All of this taxpayer money supports a program designed to supposedly get rid of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, yet it actually increases nuclear proliferation risks and doesn’t really get rid of the plutonium. It just creates a different type of fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors, for which no utility has yet agreed to use, along with a slew of other fatally radioactive materials. Read more about some of the concerns here.
Nuclear energy programs have enjoyed preferential treatment from our government since it started investing research and development (R & D) funds more than half a century ago. In fact, as you can see by these charts, nuclear energy has gotten nearly half of all funds, and twice as much as all renewable energies and efficiency technologies combined. Despite that, the industry still externalizes the cost of dealing with nuclear waste and decommissioning aged nuclear power plants and relies on government subsidies, loan guarantees from the government and state-level advance cost recovery schemes to fund new reactor projects because investors understand they are a financial risk. This creates a rotten deal for many, including consumers, taxpayers, utility ratepayers and small business owners.
Contrary to stated national goals of supporting “free-markets,” this chart clearly shows that our government has favorites and is willing to throw big money behind pet projects. Certainly, if actual goals were to create and ensure a clean, safe and affordable energy future, renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency would be getting more of that funding.
Instead, decision makers continue to throw good money after bad. It is past time for our leaders in Washington, with encouragement from all of us, to reevaluate our (failed) national energy policy and figure out how it can better support the much needed and long overdue transition into a clean, safe energy future that will truly offer hope and opportunities for existing and future generations.