Cost of nuclear safety could spell death knell for sector says expert

A University of Vermont researcher has published a report that says the cost of the safety measures needed for nuclear energy will eventually make the power source economically unviable.

The Chicago Tribune reports that after the Fukushima power plant disaster in Japan last year, the rising costs of nuclear energy could deliver a knockout punch to its future use in the United States, according to a researcher at the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment.

"From my point of view, the fundamental nature of nuclear suggests that the future will be as clouded as the past," says Mark Cooper, the author of the report. New safety regulations enacted or being considered by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission would push the cost of nuclear energy too high to be economically competitive.

The disaster insurance for nuclear power plants in the United States is currently underwritten by the federal government, Cooper says. Without that safeguard, "nuclear power is neither affordable nor worth the risk. If the owners and operators of nuclear reactors had to face the full liability of a Fukushima-style nuclear accident or go head-to-head with alternatives in a truly competitive marketplace, unfettered by subsidies, no one would have built a nuclear reactor in the past, no one would build one today, and anyone who owns a reactor would exit the nuclear business as quickly as possible."

That government backing of nuclear energy is starting to change after Fukushima. Even the staunchest nuclear advocates say that with new technologies, nuclear power can always be made safer, but nothing can offer a guarantee against a plant meltdown.

"In the wake of a severe nuclear accident like Fukushima, the attention of policymakers, regulators, and the public is riveted on the issue of nuclear safety," the report says. "The scrutiny is so intense that it seems like the only thing that matters about nuclear reactors is their safety."

"Sometimes the industry says 'If people understood it better, they wouldn't be as concerned,'" he says. "It's a different kind of disaster, and the industry has to start accepting it is different. There's a very wide impact in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster--you've got large dead zones, large exclusion zones. These problems you create, they strike a chord in human beings that is very deep-seeded and real. It's the nature of the technology."

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