Sunday, October 09, 2005

Is there a role for nuclear power? | Is there a role for nuclear power?

Morris R. Beschloss
Special to The Desert Sun
October 9, 2005

In the context of increasing concern over energy availability, many observers are confused about the role that nuclear power can play in resolving ongoing shortages. With the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear malfunction still weighing heavily on the collective memories of American consumers, the nuclear option has not engendered public confidence. In fact it creates fear, in spite of the fact that leading industrial nations gain much of their electrical power from nuclear-powered generators.
A major misconception lies in the fact that nuclear energy is strictly a powering element for electric generation, and has nothing to do with America's widening gap of supply/demand in our mammoth automotive industry.

Nuclear power has been a veritable godsend for such natural resource-poor nations as France, which would otherwise have to delve into their short supplies of oil, natural gas and imported coal to power their domestic electrical industry. Three-fourths of France's electric power today is supplied by nuclear energy.

Even China, which sits on one of the world's largest coal repositories, is aggressively expanding its nuclear power base as its consumer sector grows exponentially.

Although the recently signed U.S. energy bill boasts about facilitating the re-emergence of America's domestic nuclear sector, it will barely do so, or lessen our nation's dependence on fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal derivatives).

Since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 traumatized the U.S. against further nuclear transmission generator startups, there has, however, been no slackening in the powering elements needed to drive the nation's electrical generating infrastructure.

In the 26 years since 1979, the nuclear void was originally filled by oil, natural gas and coal. Since oil has become out of reach price-wise, as has natural gas, the slack has been taken up almost exclusively by coal.

The emergence of coal as the overabundant powering element in America's electric generation industry is enabled by three salient factors:

The U.S., along with China, harbors the largest coal reserves in the world. At the present rate of usage, it would take 300 years to exhaust available supplies.

The increasingly environment-friendly conversion that coal has undergone in the last 25 years. This "cleanup" is still in the process of evolution.
The competitive cost factor that coal brings to the table. It currently exceeds natural gas costs by a mile and is replacing fossil fuels as fast as possible.

Even so, nuclear power continues to remain a significant part of the overall power generating mix. Although building of new nuclear generators came to a halt in the early '80s, most of those in service have continued to operate. With minimal publicity, many of them were upgraded, repaired and made more efficient.

Despite the continued opposition by environmentalists and the near melt-down of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe in the Soviet Union, it is expected that a more environmentally acceptable and cost effective unit should be on line by 2015, with construction targeted to begin by 2010. It is estimated that the cost of today's units are many times those of 25 years ago. Construction time is five years at best.

The energy bill's relaxed insurance provisions will facilitate the inevitable risk taking by the new project's investors. But like the badly needed oil refining capacity, nuclear utilization will also have to stand the test of profitability. Unlike every other one of the world's nations utilizing nuclear power, American nuclear power stations are not subsidized by the government and must be able to function profitably in the private business sector.


Post a Comment

<< Home