Sunday, August 14, 2005

Time to revisit opportunities of nuclear power

The State | 08/14/2005 | Time to revisit opportunities of nuclear power

AMERICA’S ENERGY FUTURE is built on unsteady ground.

Petroleum and natural gas are both getting more expensive, as worldwide demand rises quickly. They also must increasingly be imported, often from unstable or unfriendly countries. These fuels, along with coal, release the gases that are believed to increase global warming and other environmental problems. With economic growth pushing America’s demand for energy higher, the nation must ensure that it can meet future needs. To do that, we must end the logjam that has prevented the opening of any new nuclear power plants for more than two decades. South Carolina is well-positioned to be at the head of new nuclear expansion.

The rising price of a barrel of oil has been the headline-maker, but all major fuel costs are headed upward. Booming, industrializing economies such as China and India are straining energy supplies worldwide. Many of these fuels come from regimes that foster anti-American attitudes, or even attacks. Others are simply too politically unstable to be reliable, especially when tight supplies magnify any problems. America’s energy future should not be totally dependent on calm in the Middle East or Central Asia.

Our energy solution also cannot depend on sending ever more carbon emissions into the atmosphere. If our dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and electricity continues to increase, climate change is likely to be demonstrated as much more than a theory. Nuclear power’s ability to generate without worsening the greenhouse effect has caused some in the environmental movement to reverse their opposition recently.


Nuclear power uses uranium, which the United States can produce in abundance. It also, of course, requires abundant caution. Reactor designs must make a meltdown as unlikely as possible and, as a fail-safe, contain radiation in the worst case. While U.S. reactor production has been stalled, reactor designs have still been improving. New plans include gravity as a safety measure — in case of a major problem, water would flow down into the reaction chamber, cooling off the core. In short, new reactors will be better and safer than what has come before.

Still, the problem of nuclear reactor waste will continue. It must be contained safely for thousands of years. We still believe the best option is the repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which seems certain to remain stable for millennia. Certainly, storage there is preferable to the current answer: keeping containers of waste next to hundreds of active reactors, many near populated areas. The environmental threat of carbon emissions far outweighs the smaller risks of a rational nuclear waste disposal policy.

Central storage of waste would address another risk of nuclear power: terrorism. New reactors and facility security would have to be designed to withstand attack. Reactors are reinforced structures by nature. Still, adequate planning is necessary to make nuclear plants, new and old, uninviting targets.


Many of these concerns also highlight why South Carolina offers a prime locale for a new nuclear power plant. The proposal is to build one inside the Savannah River Site. That location would provide intrinsically excellent security and community safety. SRS is one of six sites being considered for the first two new nuclear plants, which would be built by a consortium of power companies.

South Carolina should have an edge in this competition; the state already has seven active power reactors, supplying more than half of its electricity. Our congressional delegation is unanimous in support of the project. The project also would tie in nicely with the state’s potential to take a lead in developing hydrogen as a power source of the future. The proposal includes a small research and teaching facility. Nuclear power could offer a way, free of fossil fuels, to produce the needed hydrogen.

Nuclear power provides about one-fifth of America’s electricity. Even with a crop of new reactors, it won’t solve our energy problems alone. America needs a broad effort to find cleaner, more secure sources and to waste less of what we have. Meeting future challenges will require ambitious efforts and tough actions. Some, such as nuclear power, this White House favors; others, such as considerably higher vehicle efficiency standards, it opposes. But America needs a whole slate of better answers on energy. On balance, nuclear power’s benefits make it one part of the solution.


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