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Save the Nukes (From Terrorists)

It won't be as dramatic as the surge in the price of gasoline, but the cost of 20 percent of the nation's electricity source -- nuclear power -- is about to rise. The increase will be to help strengthen the plants against terrorist attacks.

Thanks to the influence of the nuclear industry, though, the price will apparently not rise enough to cause nuclear power plant shutdowns for economic reasons. Neither is it likely to rise enough to pay for proper terrorism resistance.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is poised to require major "design basis" changes this spring -- the nuclear equivalent of taking a scrawny, pathetic physique susceptible to any local bully's jabs to an expensive gym for bulking up. Initial estimates are that the cost of power from fission will rise about 15 percent.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has been roundly criticized by environmentalists, and by some in Congress, for not reacting fast enough and with enough magnitude to keep nuclear power plants from turning into weapons of massive domestic radioactive destruction if hit by a terrorist attack.

"No matter how you feel about the war, this community is at risk of retaliation," said Rochelle Becker, a spokesperson for Mothers for Peace in Luis Obispo, Calif. The source she refers to is the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. "Duct tape and plastic will not prevent exposure" in the event of successful terrorism, Becker added. Communities in on the Northeastern Seaboard are also raising the terrorism issue, particularly the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution.

Environmentalists' focus on potential terrorist effects on nuclear plants is long-standing, but was renewed in the wake of 9/11. For at least two decades, environmentalists have been trying to insert the issue of potential terrorist threats into the formal federal process for licensing nukes and radioactive waste storage to no avail. Still, the NRC has been advised by congress members that it had better do more than the flimsy (and super hush-hush) procedures put in place post-9/11. Congressional pressure is the main reason the NRC is planning new basic requirements for strengthening nuclear power plants against terrorist attacks -- in the hope of keep radioactivity bottled up in the reactors in the worst-case scenarios.

Early estimates are that new federal requirements will cost each plant about $30 million initially, with an ongoing annual cost of $10 million a year.

But even a 10 to 20 percent increase in the cost of nuclear power has been damped down by industry into something more than wimpy but less than optimal, say observers.

There's been a "cozy collaboration between a weak regulatory agency and a strong special-interest lobby," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), of at least one private meeting between NRC staff and nuclear industry representatives. Markey, a member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, said that notes obtained from that meeting indicated the nuclear industry collaborated with the NRC to develop its own security regulations and attempted to dismiss some security projects -- at the same time the industry was attempting to block legislation to strengthen security at nuclear power plants. "We are talking about public safety, and the consequences of toeing the nuclear industry's line could be catastrophic."

The price to repel real threats should run in the billions -- not just a few hundred million dollars, say environmentalists close to the issue. If the price of nuclear power was jacked to up cover such costs, environmentalists might finally be able to point to the disparity between electricity from fission and that from fossil-fueled, and even renewable power, and increase political pressure to shut down plants.

So far, one of the best glimpses of current upgrades for post-9/11 nuclear security is in a request for rate hikes by Southern California Edison, main owner of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Security for the plant is expected to cost $13.9 million this year -- almost all on labor. That amounts to a 38 percent increase over security costs from 2000. Still, this only adds about 5 percent to the cost of nuclear power when it comes down to the monthly bill.

What's that money been spent on so far? The NRC states that "specific actions are sensitive, but generally include requirements for increased patrols, augmentation of the number and capabilities of security guards, additional security posts, installation of additional physical barriers, vehicle checks at greater stand-off distances, enhanced coordination with law enforcement and military authorities, and more restrictive site access controls for personnel."

The "black box" nature of the funding -- borrowing a term invoked when the military won't explain where its budget is being spent -- is a concern for ratepayers.

"Regulators will have to be satisfied with the most general descriptions of security costs and not likely much to be done about it," noted Ray Shadis, New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution adviser.

Environmentalists would rather see nuclear plants shut down. The two paths environmentalists unsuccessfully pursued in the past are safety concerns and high cost. The issue of terrorism plays into both safety and cost.

Without question, environmentalists want operating nuclear plants to be as safe as possible, with all the expensive bells and whistles that are expected to be added in the NRC's pending design basis order -- and more. The question remains whether the resulting increased cost of nuclear power on an ongoing basis -- without on-site radioactive waste storage, insurance or accidents -- will tip the scales enough to warrant economic shutdowns.

J.A. Savage is acting editor of the independent publication California Energy Markets.

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