Nuclear power: Still a rip-off after all these years

The sun needs to set on this industry. (Photo: Markus Distelrath from Pixabay)

Nuclear waste is probably the last thing on the minds of Nevadans these days, what with … everything. 

But Nevada politicians, industries, and people have expended untold jillions of FTE hours fighting Yucca Mountain over more than three decades.

So Nevadans may be interested to know that the industry trying to ram that waste down our throats is at the heart of this week’s FBI arrest of the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives on a racketeering charge.

Recap (cribbed from the Current’s sibling, the Ohio Capital Journal): A now-bankrupt utility called FirstEnergy Solutions paid $61 million into a “dark money” PAC controlled by Ohio state Rep. Larry Householder, who then showered the money on fellow Republican legislators, who then selected Householder as House Speaker, and next thing you know Ohio lawmakers passed (and Ohio’s governor signed) a $1.2 billion bailout for FirstEnergy’s economically failing nuclear power plants.

Nevadans may like to take a perverse pride in their state as a very interesting, anything-goes sort of place where a uniquely craven politics is unusually rife with shady shenans and sweetheart deals.

To which Ohio is entitled to say, hold my beer.

I mean, sure, Ohio’s population is about four times bigger than Nevada’s. But $61 million? That’s pretty impressive.

The $1.2 billion public subsidy for a private company, on the other hand, is not particularly outlandish by Nevada standards. Nevada shelled out as much in “incentives” for Tesla, and ladled $750 million to the Raiders.

At least when Nevada elected officials recklessly steered public resources away from public services and to the private sector, it got a battery factory and Mid-Air Engine Failure Field. All Ohio got was a pair of old nuclear power plants that Ohio already had.

Leaving aside for the moment Ohio’s policy decision, ludicrous in design and corrupt in execution, to force electricity customers to rescue a power company, you may be wondering, Why would an electric utility need $1.2 billion to keep some old reactors reacting in the first place?

Glad you asked!

When nuclear power was new on the scene, which is to say about the same time charming mid-mod houses were being built east of the Strip & south of Desert Inn, it came with the promise nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter.”

A half-dozen decades and countless cost overruns, skyrocketing maintenance expenses and public bailouts later, the financial sector won’t touch nuclear power with a 13-foot spent fuel rod assembly.

The Bush-Cheney administration was hot for nuclear power. Early in Bush’s first term, Cheney stacked a panel with nuclear industry representatives to prepare a plan to build more plants, part of of what people sometimes back then called “a nuclear renaissance.” At the time I was working for Public Citizen, writing about nuclear power (we were against it) and I will never forget one surprisingly candid phrase from the report: “economic viability for a nuclear power plant is difficult to demonstrate.”

Even then, the price per kilowatt was more expensive than coal, let alone gas. It still is, of course. And nearly 20 years later, nuclear can be almost three times as expensive as solar or wind.

Finance is only one industry that wants nothing to do with nuclear power. There’s another: Insurance.

That’s why there is U.S. law called the Price-Anderson Act. If/when a nuclear power plant has, you know, an “incident” that causes economic as well as ecological devastation, taxpayers will foot the bill, even in cases of private sector negligence or misconduct.

As businesses today clamor for protection against covid-related liability, perhaps they’ll point to the no-fault insurance model Congress pioneered in the Price-Anderson Act. If protection from liability is a good idea for nuclear power plants, why wouldn’t it be a good idea for casinos and retailers who put their employees in impossible and risky situations by failing to protect them from the rona?

About the same time Bush and Cheney were firing up their nuclear revival scheme, Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn was disapproving the Bush administration’s official designation of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste dump.

“Nevada is not anti-nuclear and does not oppose nuclear power,” Guinn wrote.

To which you might ask, Why not?

The answer I always got had nothing to do with the desirability, expense or calamitous risk of nuclear power, but the politics of nuclear waste: If Nevada, including and especially its congressional delegation, were against nuclear power, it would make it all the more difficult to win support of congressional colleagues in other states in the effort to keep waste out of Nevada.

It’s a legitimate concern, one on display as recently as last year, when Trump’s plan to fund the dump were supported not only by all the Republicans in the U.S. House (except Mark Amodei), but a whole lot of Democrats, too. But in the end Nancy Pelosi backed Nevada, and Trump’s Yucca wishes fizzled.

Gregory Jazcko was a nuclear policy staffer for Harry Reid, a position where he probably had to draw distinctions between opposing Yucca Mountain, but not nuclear power, on an almost daily basis. In fact, Jazcko would later become chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has never been a habitat for people who oppose nuclear power.

But after leaving that job, Jazcko wrote a book describing nuclear power as “a failed technology” that “is more hazardous than it’s worth,” and “will lead to catastrophe.”

Thankfully earlier this year, Trump proclaimed to Nevada via twitter that the tiny Trump palm had gone to the orange Trump forehead so he no longer wanted to dump nuke waste in Nevada. And if he wins a second term, well, everyone knows how trustworthy and consistent the president is.

In other words, during a second term, maybe Trump will put a revived Yucca project under the direction of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and author of the Las Vegas Gleaner political blog. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and editor at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.