|It's all that stands between us and environmental disaster
By JOHN O'NEILL
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.
Thats 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 lets take a look at the record. In 50 years there have been no
deaths from radiation exposure from nuclear plants in this country. None.
Thats 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 arent built, coal or
natural gas plants will be needed to meet the planets insatiable demand
for electricity. There arent any alternatives for large-scale electricity
production and wont 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
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
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
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
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
John ONeill is a former newspaper reporter and retired social
worker who wrote for the Atomic Industrial Forum, the nuclear industrys
trade association, from 1975 to 1983.
|Failed technology has no part in energy plans
of the future
By MICHAEL MARIOTTE
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
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 Bushs energy policy would not do that. Its 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,
its a throwback to a futuristic vision from the 1950s that never came
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
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 Bushs 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 wont 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
doesnt 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.