Welcome to the nuclear neighborhood?

By Greg Harman

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You finally closed on the cutest little 3-2 bungalow on the corner of Ease Street & Tranquility Lane. But before you even get the shelf paper unwrapped a massive cooling tower rises from the earth with a rumble that sets your doublepanes askew.

Welcome to the Nuclear Neighborhood.

In the ongoing debate of nuclear power's merits and demerits, Texas State geography professor Dr. Ronald R. Hagelman (left) addressed South Texas residents as part of the John W. Stormont Lecture Series at Victoria University.

His presentation, “Welcome to the Nuclear Neighborhood: Victoria 's Future Through the Eyes of Other Nuclear Cities,” soon to be published in the Journal of South Texas Studies, is rooted primarily in the economic impact a nuclear power plant would likely have on Victoria County.

Exelon Energy has applied for a license to build and operate two plants in Victoria County.

Writes Tara Bozick for the Victoria Advocate:

Undoubtedly, short-term economic benefits will come to the area of a nuclear plant, but the same math behind that projection also shows long-term costs, Hagelman said.

During his analysis of demographic information, Hagelman found that nuclear neighborhoods, those counties with a nuclear plant, offer a higher standard of living, better education and tangible tax growth. Residents of those neighborhoods also live longer.

When comparing Victoria County with these nuclear neighborhoods, the environmental geographer found Victoria already compares with the same level of benefit.

The real question becomes how much better will Victoria get, he added.

But nuclear power generation is different from other industry in that the site of the plant will remain radioactive for thousands of years, Hagelman said. No technology exists to zap the radioactivity out of the site.

That means more of a long-term management responsibility, he said. That includes adaptation to sea level rise or toxic release.

"The environmental risks are just as real, and they're transgenerational," Hagelman said. "Anyone who wants to sweep that under the carpet is not being up front."

I spoke with Hagelman earlier in the week and he said he based his presentation on county-level statistics, since they fluctuate less than city-level statistics, and since power plants tend to be located in counties rather than inside city limits.

He blew one of his own hypotheses out of the water when he found that nuke plants don't tend to be based in impoverished counties the way waste dumps and incinerators are.

“From a broad development perspective, workforce demographics, overall income patterns, and health and welfare, what you find is that the nuclear neighborhood â?¦ those 63 counties that currently host one or more nuclear power facilities, they tend to be above-average, if you will, in those measurements,” he said.

That doesn't hold for Matagorda County, where CPS Energy may double the size of its two-reactor power plant and the median household income is almost $10,000 lower than the state average.

Generally, Hagelman said he agreed with Exelon's promise of short-term economic gains from two nuclear plants. “I think those benefits are real. First off, the short-term benefits are pretty hard to argue with. You get a quick bump in construction and things of that nature.”

However, the long-term impacts are “relatively sparse,” and weighing the cost of nuclear power against the perceived and expected benefits difficult.

“My concern is simply that community has been inundated, and one might even argue distracted, by a lot of short-term analysis, all of which is sort of, in my opinion, a non-argument. Yes, absolutely there is a short-term benefit to it, but you have long-term responsibilities that come with this that are both real, that are relatively easy to project.”

Then you have the fact that the entire facility, after about 50 years, must be disposed of radioactive waste and the site itself stricken from the tax rolls.

“Every thing we keep discovering about these sites both within the United States and outside the United States is that the radioactivity, or the toxicity of the radioactive matter, sort of continues to be pushed further and further and further off in time. Every time we say it's going to be 10 years, it becomes 15. Every time we say 50, it turns into 1,500.”

Whatever the ultimate duration of the toxicity of the site, it is inarguably longer than the lifespan of the power plant.

“At best, we think we may be able to extend the life â?¦ maybe to 60-70 years or something, and that's at the far, far edge of what we can probably do. Well, if you have 50 years of â??respectable' development and then you end up with, at minimum 150 years of long-term site management responsibilities, are we sure all of the math is being factored into the cost-benefit analysis that the community's being asked to digest?

“My argument would be, personally, I don't think they've gotten all the information. I think they've gotten the information that supports the decision. I don't think they've gotten the information that really might weigh the scales of the cost a little bit away from the benefits.”

It's a topic you can expect this specialist of environmental geography and hazards mitigation to return to.

“What I did for the conference at Victoria is very basic, very rudimentary, very focused on the presence or absence of the plant. There's a much more complex and probably much more intellectual conversation about the larger costs of the entire process â?? from mining to processing to production to, obviously, shipping and handling to disposal and storage. And there's a much more complex and, in a lot of ways, much more interesting conversation about that. What are the costs and benefits of the larger waste stream, the production waste stream?"

`Consider the image of the carbon-intensive nuclear fuel cycle at right and read more on the technology's full costs.`

“There's a much bigger game afoot here in terms of the cost-benefit of this form of electricity and energy production.”

Considering the “transgenerational” aspects of nuclear, as the scholar spoke to the scribe, it is best to consider the Great Law of the Iroquois: “In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation ... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”

Good to see folks like Hagelman playing a part in toughening our hides to the soothing salves and easy promises of an indisputably toxic industry.

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