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A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy
Senator Pete V. Domenici
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004
271 pp., $24.95, hardcover, ISBN 0-7425-4188-6 (cloth)

This book provides some important insights into the thinking and actions of a very powerful U.S. Senator who is promoting nuclear energy through legislation that could pass Congress this year and make fundamental changes in U.S. policy and greatly increase costs to U.S. taxpayers. But there are also significant omissions, which cast doubt on whether that nuclear energy future is a “brighter tomorrow.”

Pete Domenici has been a U.S. Senator from New Mexico since 1973, and he has played a major role in promoting pro-nuclear policies. A Brighter Tomorrow lays out the senator’s arguments in favor of nuclear energy and why he sees a national energy bill that promotes nuclear energy as key to the future. The book describes four years of not getting the Energy bill passed, but in June 2005, the Senate again passed a bill, and a compromise bill could be negotiated with the House this fall. The senator’s vision for the U.S. and the rest of the world for the twenty-first century is: “nuclear power will be a major contributor to global peace and a better quality of life for both the developed and developing world. My ultimate goal is that in the year 2045, one hundred years after the detonation of the first atomic bomb and the birth of the nuclear age, the world will evaluate the role played by nuclear technologies and conclude that their overall impact was strongly positive.”

The book provides additional support for a campaign that the senator started in a speech at Harvard University on October 31, 1997: “I made a pledge to all American citizens that I would exert leadership to find answers to what went wrong and to what needs to be done to fix the problem of nuclear power…. Today I announce my intention to lead a new dialogue with serious discussion about the full range of nuclear technologies.”

The book remarkably provides little discussion of several issues well known to the senator – uranium production, the nuclear industry in New Mexico, nuclear insurance, and the costs of nuclear activities – that are key to both the “what is wrong/what needs to be fixed” and to having a national dialogue about nuclear energy.

About fifty percent of U.S. uranium production has been from New Mexico, though virtually none in the last decade. But the health and environmental impacts continue as thousands of uranium workers and their families have significant health problems, and contaminated soil and water pose long-term health risks that make economic development difficult. The senator's book describes the economic importance of the uranium industry to the state in the 1970s and 1980s and his legislative efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to promote the industry, including trying to ensure that cheaper foreign uranium not be allowed to dominate the U.S. industry. He briefly describes his efforts to fund the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides compensation to, in the senator’s words, “miners who suffered ill health through past work in dangerous conditions.” But he does not describe the health effects – including cancer and lung diseases – nor the thousands of people affected.

The “uranium resource issues” chapter describes the fact that the world does not have enough uranium to meet the fuel demand for the hundreds of new nuclear power plants needed to fulfill his vision, and the senator’s support for reprocessing as the solution to the shortfall. But the senator includes no description of the future of the uranium industry in his home state, and he provides no program to address the existing or future health and environmental problems of uranium development in New Mexico or elsewhere.

There is no mention of the senator’s lead role in trying to bring uranium enrichment to Eunice, New Mexico, after the European companies of Louisiana Energy Services (LES) failed in their attempts to build the plant in Louisiana and Tennessee. Instead, LES is as an example of “overregulation” by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since it considered LES’s application for seven years in the 1990s without granting a license. The “regulatory roadblocks” chapter describes some of the senator’s efforts to bring about major changes to the NRC so that it now is “a solid, predictable regulatory agency” that accomplishes “license renewals on a reasonable schedule, and most important, they are sticking to schedules once they publish them.” In the case of LES in New Mexico, that means that the NRC will issue a license in early 2006, even though 18 months after the license application was submitted, it is not complete and continues to change.

The absence of nuclear power plants in New Mexico is not mentioned, nor does the senator state whether his vision includes nuclear plants in the state. He also does not mention the billions of dollars of cost overruns paid by New Mexico ratepayers for the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, which two New Mexico based utilities partially own. Amazingly, there is no discussion of the requirement to continue the Price-Anderson law that provides government-funded insurance for nuclear power plants, even though extension of that law in the Energy bill also covers the new “safe” designs of nuclear power plants.

Two major “what’s wrong/needs to be fixed” issues that are given many pages are nuclear nonproliferation and the “waste disposal conundrum.” The longest chapter is on nonproliferation and includes interesting anecdotes about the senator’s involvement in the Nunn-Lugar and related nonproliferation programs. Sen. Domenici is repeatedly critical of the “failed” policies of President Carter to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology by prohibiting reprocessing and mixed oxide (plutonium) fuel for U.S. civilian reactors. The Domenici nonproliferation program includes removing highly enriched uranium (HEU) from research reactors, since HEU can be used to make nuclear weapons, small modular reactors for developing countries, and “incentives” for countries that “forego indigenous fuel cycle capabilities.” The uncalculated costs of those programs are to be paid by U.S. taxpayers.

There is no mention of two major problems with the Domenici plan. First, if uranium centrifuge enrichment technology is unacceptable for Iran and North Korea because it can be used to create HEU, why should the same technology be allowed at the LES plant in New Mexico or in other countries? More fundamentally, the limits on nuclear weapons proliferation are based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970. That treaty requires that nuclear weapons states “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” so that other nations agreed to not develop nuclear weapons. The non-nuclear nations retain “the inalienable right…to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” The nuclear weapons states are not negotiating nuclear disarmament, and neither Sen. Domenici nor the Bush Administration even discuss it. The Domenici approach neither strengthens the NPT nor describes a replacement for the treaty.

On waste disposal, Senator Domenici continues to support the Yucca Mountain, Nevada dumpsite for commercial spent fuel. But he proposes two major changes in law and policy: centralized spent fuel storage and “advanced fuel technology” of reprocessing and transmutation of spent nuclear fuel to separate out uranium, plutonium, and actinides. The book provides no estimates of the costs of such an effort – and justifies whatever the costs would be as the supposed saving “the $70 billion cost of another geologic repository.” The claim that reprocessing generates less waste has not been true historically. Also ignored are the continuing billions of dollars in cleanup costs and health problems of past U.S. reprocessing at Hanford, WA; Savannah River, SC; and Idaho National Lab.

Nonetheless, without any public hearings in Congress, the House Energy and Water Appropriations bill passed on May 24 requires DOE to pick an interim storage site and begin shipping commercial spent fuel to that site by September 30, 2006 and to choose an “advanced fuel cycle technology” by 2007. As Chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, Senator Domenici will craft the Senate bill. Neither the House bill, nor Sen. Domenici’s book indicate what criteria DOE should use to pick the storage site (and how to do it under existing laws within the timeframe given), nor what results or costs are to guide the advanced fuel cycle technology decision. The interim site is presumably where the reprocessing/transmutation would occur, so the political decision of which site receives the unwanted waste would precede a determination of what, if any, technology should be pursued. Similar strategies in the past resulted in picking Yucca Mountain and unrealistic schedules that have prevented achieving any high-level waste disposal.

Thus, many readers can conclude that the Domenici program will lead to two essential results – at least tens of billions of dollars spent to promote nuclear energy despite the inevitable health and environmental problems and proliferation of nuclear weapons technologies, creating increased dangers for all humanity.
-- Don Hancock

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200
Lanham, MD 20706

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