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Issue Date:  June 16, 2006

Nuclear power: promise or peril

It's all that stands between us and environmental disaster


Americans should be most grateful that we have a readily available, economical, safe, environmentally friendly source of electrical power from nuclear plants to help avert the global warming that presents such potential disaster for our fragile planet.

That’s not the usual message in the media, which often give airtime or newsprint to some perceived dire safety hazard or other promoted by antinuclear groups to clueless reporters.

So let’s take a look at the record. In 50 years there have been no deaths from radiation exposure from nuclear plants in this country. None. That’s 3,100 reactor years of operation over 50 years. Add 5,500 reactor years of operation by the nuclear Navy. None. Sixty years of transportation of nuclear materials. Still none. And, yes, the industry has safely managed its waste and will continue to do so.

Three Mile Island was a serious and expensive accident 27 years ago, but no one was killed or injured. The upshot was that companies with nuclear plants beefed up training and safety procedures. The Chernobyl reactor was very different from the technology used in American plants, had no thick containment building to hold in radiation like plants in the rest of the world, and had poorly trained operators. A similar accident in this country is impossible.

The remarkable safety record of American nuclear power plants is no accident. Nuclear plant design, construction and operation are closely regulated by federal agencies. Scrupulous nuclear plant owners established training institutions to ensure that personnel are superbly prepared.

However, the primary reason that nuclear power is poised for a renaissance is not its outstanding safety record but global warming caused by coal and natural gas plants. If nuclear plants aren’t built, coal or natural gas plants will be needed to meet the planet’s insatiable demand for electricity. There aren’t any alternatives for large-scale electricity production and won’t be any for decades.

In the United States, 600 coal plants produce about 50 percent of electricity; 103 nuclear plants produce about 20 percent; natural gas, about 19 percent; hydroelectric, about six percent; oil, three percent; and all other sources including solar, biomass and wind, less than 3 percent.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector represented 39 percent of total U.S. energy-related emissions in 2004, with coal alone accounting for one-third. To our disgrace, nearly 9 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, the worst culprit in global warming, come from U.S. fossil power plants.

Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases. None. To meet new electrical demand with coal and gas production while the polar icecaps melt and sea levels rise, deserts expand and increasing hurricanes and cyclones churn through the oceans is nuts.

The Department of Energy projects a need for 45 percent more electricity in the United States by 2030. China, India, Russia and others are racing to join the developed world, and their needs for electricity will be staggering.

Some leaders in the environmental arena who once fought nuclear power have changed their views. “Nuclear energy may be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change,” said Patrick Moore, cofounder of Greenpeace. He said “the rest of the environmental movement needs to update its views.”

“There is no sensible alternative to nuclear power if we are to sustain civilization,” said James Lovelock, the famed British scientist and environmentalist who proposed the Gaia Hypothesis that the Earth is a single organism.

Sad to say, 27 new nuclear plants are under construction in 11 countries, but none in the United States.

That will change. A 2005 poll shows that 70 percent of Americans support building more nuclear plants, and 76 percent living near nuclear plants are willing to see a new reactor built near them. Congress included incentives for expansion of nuclear power in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. As many as 12 to 19 new plants may be ordered in the next three years, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington.

One big loose end remains: permanent nuclear waste disposal. Used fuel is temporarily and safely stored at reactor sites. In 2002 the president and Congress, in a bipartisan vote, approved Yucca Mountain, Nev., for permanent storage. At Yucca Mountain, fuel rods will be stored in canisters 1,000 feet below ground in a remote desert area that has been geologically stable for millions of years. The selection of Yucca Mountain follows two decades of analysis by thousands of respected scientists representing dozens of reputable organizations, at a cost of $9 billion. The site will meet stringent federal standards.

Nuclear power is the only industry since the industrial revolution that has managed and accounted for all its waste, preventing environmental damage, said the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Clearly, the poisoning of the earth by greenhouse gases has been exacerbated because of misguided fears of nuclear power.

Said John Ritch, former U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency: “Humankind cannot conceivably achieve a global clean-energy revolution without a rapid expansion of nuclear power to generate electricity.”

John O’Neill is a former newspaper reporter and retired social worker who wrote for the Atomic Industrial Forum, the nuclear industry’s trade association, from 1975 to 1983.

Failed technology has no part in energy plans of the future


On May 26, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood on a podium and flipped a switch that ushered in the nuclear power age. By turning on the Shippingport, Pa., nuclear power reactor, the first commercial atomic reactor in the United States, President Eisenhower made a giant stride toward his goal of “Atoms for Peace” and energy independence for the country. Or so he thought.

Today, President George W. Bush has become enamored of the same technology that captivated President Eisenhower. But with some 50 years of experience of safety failures, cost overruns, security threats and unsolvable radioactive waste problems, President Bush has much less justification.

The president would have us believe that nuclear power is the future. With the reprocessing of radioactive waste, he says we could have a limitless supply of nuclear fuel that can produce hydrogen for future vehicles and electricity for “plug-in” hybrids in the meantime. His version of atomic power would produce electricity without greenhouse gas emissions. Then, he says, we can declare independence from the bad Saudis, or Venezuelans, or whoever the current oil boogeyman happens to be.

In fact, President Bush would bring us back to the 1950s — back to an obsolete atomic technology with drawbacks that, since the beginning, have outweighed whatever benefits it may once have offered.

Give President Bush credit for this: He has identified the problem correctly, or at least part of the problem. The United States is addicted to oil, and that has to stop for the sake of energy independence and the survival of the planet.

But the United States is also addicted to other greenhouse gas emitters like coal, nuclear power and natural gas. It is way past time that we move toward an energy policy that will reduce greenhouse emissions while providing us with the energy we need to heat and cool our homes and offices, to keep our beer cold and our dinners hot, and for transportation.

President Bush’s energy policy would not do that. It’s too timid, too reliant on the same big oil, big nuclear, big coal interests that got us into this jam in the first place. Far from being forward-thinking, it’s a throwback to a futuristic vision from the 1950s that never came about.

An energy policy for the 21st century would start with a simple axiom: Do less harm to the earth while providing for our energy needs.

As an obvious first step, one that President Bush has avoided, we need to increase vehicle mileage standards. There is no other action that the government could take that would more effectively reduce oil imports and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. A president who truly believed we are “addicted to oil” would make this a centerpiece of his energy policy.

The next step is to focus our limited research and development dollars on technologies that actually can succeed both at providing energy and reducing emissions. Those technologies are solar power, wind power, geothermal, and yes, in the future, green hydrogen — hydrogen produced by renewable resources. We also need to pursue distributed energy systems, to reduce reliance on large power plants of any kind. When a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant goes down for refueling or repairs, another 1,000 megawatts of standby power needs to be there to replace it. With a distributed energy system of numerous smaller-scale electrical generators, expensive backup power is no longer needed.

Nuclear power plays no role in an effective energy policy for the 21st century. The epitome of 20th-century technological arrogance and overkill, nuclear power has yet to solve any of the problems that have plagued it from the beginning: safety, economics and radioactive waste. And in the 21st century, nuclear power poses a unique new threat as a terrorist target like no other. Conversely, what terrorist would bother knocking down a windmill?

President Bush’s recent embrace of reprocessing as a solution for radioactive waste disposal is emblematic of the failures of nuclear power. More than 50 years into the nuclear age, no nation in the world has yet found an acceptable solution for handling radioactive waste. In the United States, progress on opening the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste site has deservedly slowed to a crawl. Choosing reprocessing of nuclear fuel — a dirty, dangerous, expensive endeavor spurned by the industry itself — is more an admission that our radioactive waste programs have failed than a real alternative. The terrible failures of reprocessing in France and the United Kingdom, not to mention failed efforts to build a “fast” reactor to take full advantage of reprocessing, should be a red flag to the United States that this path just won’t work.

Moreover, the initial $250 million President Bush is requesting for this program is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Implementation of a commercial-scale reprocessing program would cost tens of billions of dollars and send electricity rates soaring.

Our energy path forward is clear, but George Bush the oilman still doesn’t get it: We need to invest in sustainable energy technologies and vastly increased energy efficiency. President Bush took a first step by admitting our oil addiction. Now the rest of us will have to bypass his 50-year-old program and instead embrace those energy solutions that offer a future, not more of the failed programs of the past.

Michael Mariotte is the executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2006

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