Beyond Nuclear International

Not gold mines but money pits

New reactor costs are exploding as delays stretch on indefinitely

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Oops sorry. That two-reactor nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C you thought would cost $19 billion? It’s going to cost $26 billion now. Actually, make that $35 billion. Wait, sorry, no, the actual number is closer to $40 billion. When will it be ready for operation? Um, well, currently says French contractor, EDF, maybe 2027? Ish?

And those two American Westinghouse reactors in Georgia at the Plant Vogtle 3 and 4 site? $14 billion tops! That prediction came back in the good old days, ten years ago. Today, with neither reactor completed, the cost is at least $34 billion. Just last month, Southern Company said it would be adding another $200 million to the price tag and pushed the start date of the Vogtle-3 unit, the closest to completion, back to “May or June” of this year. And Unit 4? The company says late 2023. Others predict 2024. Or you could just roll some dice or stare into a crystal ball. All options are equally reliable.

Let’s turn to Small Modular Reactors (SMR), which are supposed to solve everything. In 2008, the American company, NuScale, announced that its SMR would be delivering electricity by 2015-2016. It’s 2023 and there’s no reactor. But hey, says NuScale, we do have a design certification!  For a 50 MW reactor. But they’re actually planning to build a 77 MW model. And not 12 of them anymore as originally planned. Just six, at a cost of $5.32 billion.

Michael Johnson, NRC Deputy Executive Director for Operations (right), and Vonna Ordaz, Acting Director of the NRC Office of New Reactors (second from right) receive NuScale’s application to certify the company’s small modular reactor design in 2017 from NuScale Chief Nuclear Officer Dale Atkinson (second from left) and NuScale Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Tom Bergman (left). The company originally predicted it would have its SMRs operational by 2015-2016. (Photo: US NRC)

That price tag, in terms of the cost per installed kilowatt, “is around 80 percent higher than the corresponding figure for the Vogtle twin AP1000 project in Georgia—and this is before the Vogtle costs exploded from US$14 billion to over US$30 billion once construction started,” explains M.V. Ramana in the 2022 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR).

But even those numbers have changed since the WNISR was published back in October 2022. Since then, the cost projections for a NuScale-SMR six-pack have further skyrocketed to $9.3 billion.

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New nuclear weapons plan faces scrutiny

DOE wanted to quadruple plutonium pit production. For now, activists have stopped them

From SRS Watch, Tri-Valley CAREs, Nuclear Watch New Mexico and the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition

In a win for public participation and environmental protection, the United States District Court of South Carolina denied the Department of Energy’s motion to dismiss a 2021 legal action filed by multiple citizen groups. 

The suit was prompted by the agency’s failure to take the “hard look” required by the National Environmental Policy Act at its plans to more than quadruple the production of plutonium pits for new nuclear weapons and split their production between the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site. 

In her ruling, Judge Mary Geiger Lewis thoroughly rejected the defendants’ arguments that the plaintiffs lacked standing, saying it was “not a close call”.

“We were able to defeat yet another attempt to use standing as a weapon to keep members of the public out of the government’s decision-making process,” said Leslie Lenhardt, Senior Managing Attorney at the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP). 

A section of the sprawling Savannah River Site where plutonium pits have never been made. (Photo: DOE)

To date, the Department of Energy (DOE) has refused to fully examine the environmental and safety impacts of their cross-country plan, which would create massive quantities of dangerous radioactive materials, put hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on the line, risk a new nuclear arms race, and violate the nation’s foundational environmental law. 

The Savannah River Site has never produced plutonium pits, the explosive cores of all U.S.nuclear weapons, and currently stores 11.5 metric tons of plutonium, which poses a daunting management and disposal challenge. Pit production will only increase its plutonium burden, along with more waste that needs to be treated, stored and disposed of.

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Stop or START?

Does an arms reduction treaty matter when zero nuclear weapons is the only safe number?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

After writing an initial quick reaction piece about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to suspend his country’s participation in the New START Treaty, there has been time for some logic to set in. In other words, I have thought more about this and something doesn’t add up.

What doesn’t make sense is the inherent contradiction of, on the one hand, condemning Putin’s decision to step back from the last treaty that limits the US and Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenals, but on the other, espousing a conviction that there can never be few enough nuclear weapons unless that number is zero.

Why does it matter, then, whether the two nuclear super powers agree to cap their arsenals at “only” 3,000 or so lethal nuclear missiles and warheads each? Given the utter destruction of planet Earth that these would cause if used, an escalation (or even a decrease) seems irrelevant.

Dr. Ira Helfand of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War put this case all too clearly in a February 22 appearance on Democracy Now! when he told host, Amy Goodman: “The New START treaty, while somewhat useful, is a very limited document and a very inadequate treaty. It still allows the United States and Russia to maintain — and they do — 3,100 strategic nuclear weapons, ranging in size from 100 kilotons to 800 kilotons. That is six to 50 times more powerful than the bombs which destroyed Hiroshima.”

Getting to a complete nuclear weapons ban is the only safe number. (Photo: ICAN/Tim Wright/Creative Commons)

It’s a treaty, Helfand said, that “allows both the United States and Russia to maintain arsenals which are capable of destroying modern civilization six times over.”

So is there any point to START, “New” or otherwise? Surely we need to stop the manufacture, possession, siting (including in other people’s countries), and especially the use of nuclear weapons and get rid of them altogether? And the only instrument equipped to do that is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

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Reckless or rhetoric?

Was Russian premier threatening a new arms race or warning the West off Ukraine?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

In a major state-of-the-union address in Moscow on February 21, Russian president, Vladimir Putin said: “I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.”

International reaction was swift, most of it condemnatory, but some also cautioning that it may contain more bluster and implicit threat than a true escalation.

Putin was referring to the New START treaty, first signed by then presidents Obama (US) and Medvedev (Russian Federation) in Prague in 2010. The treaty caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the US and Russia may deploy and the deployment of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them. The treaty was renewed in 2021 for another five years.

Former US President Obama and then Russian President Medvedev, signed the New START Treaty in Prague in 2010. (Photo: Commons)

Specifically, New START sets out limits, which so far both the United States and the Russian Federation have met or remained below. They are: 

  • 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;
  • 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);
  • 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

Suspending participation is in itself a violation of the treaty. Russia has arguably already been out of compliance with the treaty since well before the invasion of Ukraine, by refusing to allow weapons inspections since 2020 and refusing to join arms control talks under the terms of the treaty since 2021.

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Courting disaster

Embroiled in a year-long war, Ukraine’s reactors face new threats

By Linda Pentz Gunter

A year ago, we warned of the significant and unacceptable risks to Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors, should they become caught up in a war zone as a consequence of an invasion by Russia. A year later, as we outlined in a Beyond Nuclear press release, those risks have become a reality. And in recent days, the scares and close calls have ramped up again.

Just last week, cruise missiles flew dangerously low over the South Ukraine nuclear power plant in the country’s western region. Then alarms were raised as observers noticed an alarming drop in the water level of the Kakhovka Reservoir, on which the six-reactor Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant depends for its essential cooling water supply.

A missile strike or loss of cooling water are just two of the many scenarios that could lead to a nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine. Others include loss of electricity supply, human error or sabotage. The conditions of war just make any and all of these outcomes far more likely.

Indeed, these latest close calls and others prompted a recent statement by the head of Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection, Inge Paulini, who warned that an incident at one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants would have, “far-reaching consequences as long as the war continues.” And yet, she pointed out, “this danger already seems to be receding into the background of public awareness.”

Indeed, it has been a consistent pattern in the press not to take nuclear power risks seriously. Instead, the media publishes story after story, planted there by a well-orchestrated worldwide nuclear industry campaign, about the benefits of expanding nuclear power.

The Ukrainian energy ministry would seem to agree. Even in the midst of this devastating war, it has just made a deal with the American company, Westinghouse, to purchase two new AP1000 reactors. It is of course unrealistic to envisage these actually being built during a war and, if ever operational, they would simply become additional lethal targets.

In Ukraine, we have seen Russia routinely attack the electric grid, leading to periodic loss of offsite power at all four of Ukraine’s nuclear power plant sites. Zaporizhzhia, in the contested southeastern part of the country, has experienced multiple disconnections from the grid. So far, the diesel generators have functioned until offsite power was restored. But they are reliant on a steady replenishment of fuel, which could be impeded were the plant to come under siege.

A ready supply of cooling water is also essential so the drain down of the Kakhovka Reservoir is a serious concern. Why this is happening is unclear, but it is thought to be a possible Russian military tactic to flood strategic areas, making them impassable to advancing Ukrainian troops.

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Cities must not be targets

Using nuclear weapons on populations is inherently racist and xenophobic

By Carlos Umaña, MD

The following was a live presentation made by Dr. Umaña inside the basement of the St. Nikolai Church, destroyed during the firebombing of Hamburg during World War II but now housing a museum commemorating the horrors of targeting cities during war.

I am honored speak on such a special occasion, to such a special crowd, and humbled to do so in such a special place. Here, the name of my presentation, “Cities are not targets” takes a special meaning, as in the basement of St. Nikolai’s Memorial Church one cannot help but marvel at the grandeur of human enterprise, while at the same time be appalled by the reaches of human destruction.

“Cities are not targets,” the title of my presentation, is also the name of a campaign launched in 2006 by Mayors for Peace, an organization founded in 1982 by the mayor of Hiroshima with the aim of producing nuclear abolition, an organization that currently has over 8,200 member cities.

Now, when we talk about cities, urban centers of civilian population being targets, we are not talking about peace, we are talking about war, and the bare minimum of humanity that must be followed during war. We are talking about the rules of war, for civilians ‐ innocent noncombatants ‐ must not be a part of war.

The St. Nikolai church and memorial today, Hamburg, Germany. (Photo: Sjaak Kempe/Wikimedia Commons)

During World War II, attacks on civilian structures were justified by “othering”, that is, by objectifying populations, making not the government or the army the enemy, but the people. In popular culture nowadays we see how nuclear weapons are used to fight off evil aliens in scientific action movies. Entire races of evil, ugly aliens who want to destroy humanity are killed off and humanity is saved by the atomic bomb.

In the 1940s, the aliens, in the public eye of many people in the United States, were the Japanese. The Japanese people themselves, who looked and acted so differently, were somehow evil. In the collective mind of many in the United States, all Japanese people were accomplices to their army’s misdeeds. Hence, they deserved the atomic bomb. They had it coming.

Nuclear weapons are inherently racist and xenophobic: they were created and used with the idea of killing off a population of people who are “not like us”. This “othering”, this extreme indifference towards the horrible suffering of those who are somehow different is the reason for being of these weapons and why they are the epitome of cruelty. In this sense, the words of our dear and renowned Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow resonate loudly: “nuclear weapons are not a necessary evil, but the ultimate evil”.

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