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 V.20 No.17 | April 28 - May 4, 2011 


Power Play

Symposium pitches nuclear energy in New Mexico

Jeff Drew

Since disaster struck Japan in March, the words “nuclear power” invoke the crisis in Fukushima.

But a conference put on by a division of New Mexico Tech aims to explore the viability of that energy right here in our state.

The Land of Enchantment is home to most of the major steps in the uranium fuel process, according to the New Mexico Center for Energy Policy. There's the Eunice, N.M. enrichment facility that opened just last year. There's the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad. And there's plenty of raw ore in the state's veins. But, says the center, one major piece is missing: reactors.

“Almost the entire cycle is contained in New Mexico,” says Van Romero, vice president of research at Tech, in a news release. “... This conference is an important step in bringing together key players in the area and continuing a dialog about energy and our national policies.”

Peter Neils of the Los Alamos Study Group says the conference is nothing more than a shiny sales pitch. "This is the latest in a series of efforts to revive nuclear power in America by giving people a glitzy, high-tech presentation."

"Nuclear power has never been economically viable without massive government subsidies.”

Peter Neils of the Los Alamos Study Group

The Study Group researches nuclear issues and focuses on disarmament. Late last year, the Alibi interviewed Michael Spies, who worked for the organization and went on to become a political affairs officer in the United Nations' Weapons of Mass Destruction Branch [" We Got the Neutron Bomb," Dec. 9-15, 2010].

Neils says the nuclear power industry was declining in the U.S. even before the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Companies weren't investing, and he says private investors remained scarce for decades. "Nuclear power has never been economically viable without massive government subsidies.” These days, he adds, people are lining up to get licenses to build plants, but still, little is happening beyond that.

The conference on Wednesday, April 27, and Thursday, April 28, promises to focus on a new breed of small-scale reactor that’s used in Canada. Babcock & Wilcox—the company whose reactor experienced a core meltdown on Three Mile Island—will present at the conference on the viability of smaller, modular nuclear reactors. “Large nuclear reactors generate about a gigawatt of power,” N.M. Tech VP Romero says. “These smaller reactors are safe and easy to operate and do not need a tremendous amount of infrastructure."

Also presenting are top executives from Urenco, the uranium enrichment company that owns the facility Eunice. It’s also known worldwide as the company from which Abdul Qadeer Khan gleaned secrets in the ’70s to provide Pakistan with the means to create nuclear weapons.

“These smaller reactors are safe and easy to operate and do not need a tremendous amount of infrastructure."

Van Romero, vice president of research at Tech

According to a CBS News poll, public opinion of nuclear energy is worse than ever. After the Three Mile Island meltdown, about 46 percent of Americans supported nuclear energy. As environmental concerns and gas prices increased, the number rose to about 57 percent in 2008. After Fukushima, only 43 percent of Americans are in favor of using nuclear energy in the United States.

Nuclear supporters don’t present the whole financial picture to the layperson, Neils says. The cost to build a plant is huge, he explains, and it takes 15 or 20 years to construct. The liability is astronomical. That’s why nuclear energy won’t get off the ground in the United States without a helping hand from the government. “We’ve socialized the development, the construction, the operation and the waste disposal, but we’ve privatized the profit.”

Former Sen. Pete Domenici is the keynote speaker at the conference. In 2005, he pushed the Energy Policy Act that included loan guarantees for the construction of nuclear power plants. He also serves on the Blue Ribbon Commission, which studies nuclear waste disposal.

Given the timing, the conference added to its offerings a discussion of what went wrong in Fukushima. Tim Beville from the Department of Energy will talk about how the disaster will affect policy in the United States. New Mexico Tech VP Romero says the damage at the Fukushima power plant has heightened concerns. “If you listen to the news, it seems like there’s nothing but crisis after crisis,” he says. “Yet, nothing has really happened. There is cause to be concerned. Like anything, there are risks; we need to understand those risks and act appropriately.”

Neils, from the Los Alamos Study Group, says the discussion of nuclear energy can become mired in public safety, “and we end up like a bunch of cats chasing their tails.” It’s important, he says, but ancillary to the principle issue: If the cost of nuclear energy made sense, “private investors would be beating down the door to invest in nuclear power.” Instead, he adds, they’re placing their bets on wind and solar.

The dog-and-pony show in Hobbs, N.M., he says, is part of an effort to make nuclear power seem inevitable. In truth, Neils finishes, it isn’t.


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