Friday, November 11, 2005


Nuclear Power

by Edward Wheeler, Ph.D

One kilogram of uranium fuel yields 20,000 times
more energy than one kilogram of coal
(photo: US EPA)

Editor's Note: Using electricity does not pollute. Using electric motors, electric heaters and electric lights all result in zero air pollution. The problem with electricity is how to make it, because making electricity causes pollution. And amid anxiety and disruptions, the world nonetheless is experiencing the most spectacular energy-fueled industrial renaissance in human history. There isn't enough electricity being produced in the world at a time when world demand for electricity is skyrocketing, with no end in sight.

If the "hydrogen economy" ever took off, we'd need even more electricity since manufacturing hydrogen fuel generally requires massive amounts of electricity, in a process known as electrolysis. If grid electricity is used for automotive power ala hydrogen - or batteries for that matter - the world's electricity production would have to quadruple instead of merely double. Global energy consumption in 2005 is around 14,000 gigawatt-years (420 quadrillion BTUs) per year. Wind power contributes less than 1% of the total. Photovoltaic electricity contributes at best 1/10th of one percent of the total. Biofuel is going to help but it still generates greenhouse gas, and in most cases requires significant energy inputs to grow. Will these clean energy sources develop in time to replace fossil fuel and meet growing energy demand all by themselves?

When choosing what type of electrical power generation to develop, the trade-offs are stark. Pick your poison. Over the past 30 years there haven't been many new nuclear power plants developed in the USA or most of Europe, but they are the exception. Fortunately nuclear power technology has developed significantly in the last 30 years. A few years ago the article that follows, which is informative but unabashedly pro-nuclear, would have been condemned by 99% of environmentalists. But today nuclear power has become so much safer and concerns about greenhouse gasses have become so acute that growing numbers of environmentalists are dropping their opposition to nuclear power and instead are calling for more nuclear power plants. Imagine driving through Los Angeles, or Beijing, or Mexico City, in 2020, in a car that is powered by electricity coming from a nuclear power plant. Imagine all these mega-cities without one tiny wisp of smog.
Ed "Redwood" Ring

When I declare that the U.S. desperately needs to become more like France, some of my friends get upset. But hold your anger, keep eating your Freedom Fries, and let me explain. The real reason to emulate the French is that 75% of their electrical power use is derived from nuclear reactors.

The U.S. right now generates about 50% of its electric power from coal and only about 15% from nuclear reactors. No new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. since the early 1970s, thanks in part to misguided environmental activists reacting to the Three Mile Island (3MI) meltdown, but also to really cheap natural gas and oil in the 70's and 80's. We will never see cheap oil and gas again thanks to huge increases in demand from India and China that is here to stay. We need to start building new nuclear power plants and catch up with our erstwhile friends those French, without whom we never would have won the American Revolution.

While the only by-product of a nuclear power plant that finds its way into the surroundings is hot water, coal fired plants spew out about 90% of all the pollutants given off by power production in the U.S. These include sulfur dioxides (acid rain), various nitrogen oxides (read smog), mercury, lots of carbon dioxide, (greenhouse gas, anyone?), and more radioactive gases than the virtually zero amounts given off by nuclear plants. Even relatively clean natural gas fired power plants still release significant amounts of pollutants and lots of carbon dioxide.

Opponents of nuclear power always point out that operating nuclear reactors create radioactive gases that are released into the atmosphere. Not true! The radioactive gases generated by a nuclear reactor are held in holding tanks until they decay into harmless, non-radioactive gases. Only then are they released into the atmosphere.

One large nuclear plant easily equals
the 1.2 gigawatt output of Hoover Dam
(photo: Idaho National Labs)

Along with coal, another energy choice we might consider in lieu of nuclear is hydroelectric. Building big new dams is probably even more expensive than building new nuclear plants, but the advantage is there is no waste or emissions at all. In the bargain, however, we lose all those wild rivers that rafters, kayakers, and myriad wild creatures love so much. In addition, we create huge new lakes that not only ruin the local environment, but also give jet boaters a place to zoom around in and make lots of noise. Let's not forget about what dams do to migrating fish populations such as salmon. As for "green" dams? Well if you think a regular dam costs a lot...

Remaining alternatives to nuclear power, such as wind and solar, are promising technologies but can't offer constant baseload power generation like hydroelectric and nuclear power. Moreover, solar power is still far too expensive to be developed on a scale sufficient to replace coal or nuclear power and meet growing worldwide energy demands. Also, windmills, as do new oil refineries and nuclear plants, evince the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) response. It is estimated that photovoltaic solar power costs about 23 cents per kilowatt hour (could get cheaper as new technologies evolve), while conventional coal and natural gas plants cost about half that. Nuclear power weighs in at less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

I was against the widespread use of nuclear power back in the hippy sixties and seventies for the usual reasons at the time: China Syndrome meltdowns, what to do with radioactive waste, Homer Simpson like reactor workers, and poor regulation and corruption. That was then, this is now. Several icons of the environmental movement, apostates like me, believe that the aforementioned nuclear power problems have been solved. Nuclear power is simply the most environmentally friendly way to generate electrical power, cleanly and economically.

The Three Mile Island accident could not have
happened in today's modern nuclear power plants
(photo: US EPA)

No less a luminary than Patrick Moore, the founder of Greenpeace, recently endorsed developing nuclear power.
In his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Energy and Resources, he said he now believes that the majority of environmental activists (his former friends) have become so blinded by their extremist policies that they fail to consider the enormous and obvious benefits of harnessing nuclear power to meet and secure America's growing energy needs. His testimony in essence boils down to that we need to get away from the fossil fuels that are responsible for most all of the air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions we are inundated with, and get with nuclear power that is clean and safe.

Other pioneering environmentalists have also embraced nuclear power, including Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and James Lovelock, who put forth the Gaia theory (basically, Earth is a huge living, self-regulating organism in itself). Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore went on to say, "The industry is mature. Problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island (3MI) and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design. Nuclear plants are high yield, with low cost fuel that offer the best avenue to a hydrogen economy." Well said, Mr. Moore. So let us now visit the questions of 3MI and Chernobyl, and what is "pebble bed", anyway? And lastly, the big gorilla always put forth by nuclear opponents, what to do with all that dangerous radioactive waste from a reactor's spent fuel rods.


In 1979, at the 3MI nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., a reactor overheated and a partial meltdown of the uranium core occurred. Hydrogen gas was released raising fears of a BIG explosion that would release radioactive water, solids and gases into the atmosphere. The crisis lasted 12 days, and some radioactive water and gases were released, while thousands of people were evacuated from the area (for you trivia buffs, the movie, "China Syndrome" was released just days before the real thing happened at 3MI). The explosion never happened, but the incident effectively ended construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. Various celebrities and politicians at the time demanded the shutdown of all nuclear plants and predicted cancer epidemics of every kind. Well, after 25 years, no other such accidents have occurred and no adverse health effects on the people exposed to the radioactive materials have emerged. The whole incident was due to human error. The operators reacted to a completely manageable problem with safety valves by shutting down the emergency cooling system, ultimately causing a reactor to overheat, resulting in the infamous meltdown. Wrong move, Homer Simpson and pals!! Anyway, the incident caused the industry to fix some design flaws, and actually give plant workers rigorous training, MUCH more rigorous than before the accident.

Chernobyl from orbit. The dark elongated area
area is the 12 kilometer long cooling pond. The
reactor complex is just to the left of the pond
(photo: NASA)

O.K., but what about Chernobyl, the poster child for nuclear power opponents? The worst nuclear reactor accident in history occurred there, and the Ukrainian city is to this day a ghost town. In April of 1986, engineers (probably including "Homeri Simpsonov") disabled emergency backup systems and then proceeded to test one of the plant's four reactors. Who knows why? They only succeeded in initiating an uncontrolled chain reaction in the core of the reactor, which resulted in blowing up the whole containment building. This "minor misjudgment" on the part of the plant workers resulted in about 8 tons of highly radioactive materials being spewed all over Eastern Europe and beyond. About 35 people were killed immediately from the explosion itself and acute radiation poisoning, while hundreds of others suffered from severe radiation sickness (the unlucky ones, as it is a slow, painful death).

Nuclear energy experts I have talked to say such an accident is impossible for reactors of the design used in the rest of the world. Only the old Soviet Union used the Chernobyl design, which is fatally flawed and susceptible to such accidents even when the engineers working there know what they're doing. In the 20 years since, there has been a large rise in thyroid cancers in people who were heavily exposed, especially in children. This is predictable because ingested radioactive iodine from the explosion is all concentrated in the pea sized thyroid gland. The good news is that it is one of the most curable of cancers. The cancerous gland is surgically removed and a thyroid hormone pill must be taken for the remainder of one's life. Even better, no increase in any other types of cancers has been detected in the exposed population (yet).


Now for the big gorilla, what to do with highly radioactive, long half-life, spent nuclear fuel. For the conventional nuclear plants that are operating today all over the U.S., the answer is Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The area has already been subject to about 900 nuclear bomb tests, NIMBY doesn't apply because nobody lives anywhere near there, and the area is so arid that there is virtually no groundwater for any potential waste to leech into, even if the containers of the waste do fail in only 500 years or so. It has been approved by the government as a very, very, long-term safe disposal site for all nuclear waste, but its status is now in limbo because of all those former friends of Patrick Moore. Opponents cite the danger of vehicles transporting encapsulated waste being involved in some accident that might release radioactive waste all over the place. Firstly, transport will be by rail, not trucks, so the NIMBY folks needn't worry about a truck hauling radioactive waste driving through their neighborhood. According to one of my favorite columnists, George Will, in the last 40 years more than 2,700 shipments of spent nuclear fuel have been transported more than 1.6 million miles in the U.S. Of those shipments, 4 rail and 4 highway accidents have occurred with no failure of any of the nuclear containers. Sounds like pretty good odds to me.

Yucca Mountain is being developed as a
central repository for America's nuclear waste
(photo: Sandia)

At present, radioactive waste is stored at hundreds of temporary sites around the country. How secure are those sites against a possible theft by some terrorist determined to set off a "dirty bomb" in Manhattan? Nellis Air Force Base, next door to the Yucca site, will supply ample security. Because nobody lives anywhere near the site, a terrorist would have a hard time explaining why he just happens to be in the area, maybe counting mutant gila monsters (from all those nuclear bomb tests), or even house hunting? Finally, we could again follow the lead of our European friends, and use new technologies to re-cycle nuclear waste. They have been doing it for years, why not us? Perhaps because it's cheaper to mine new uranium? The process ultimately reduces the amount of waste by about 80%. We recycle paper and aluminum, why not uranium?

Finally, let's consider why newly built reactors should use that pebble bed reactor design as an alternative to conventional nuclear plant designs. The pebble bed uses pool ball sized uranium fuel, not rods. They produce less waste material, and are more easily disposed of. The most important thing is this: if the engineers running a conventional plant are abducted by terrorists or aliens, the reactor might eventually overheat, meltdown, and explode, just like Chernobyl. The pebble bed reactor would shut itself down! Accidents such as occurred at 3MI and Chernobyl are impossible! In addition, helium is used as the coolant instead of water, yielding hydrogen as the by-product, which could be recovered to power fuel cells for the hydrogen economy of the future.

International Atomic
Energy Agency

America's politicians and regulators need to drastically reform the process that a company must go through to get government approval for new construction. It would take about 2 years to build a new nuclear reactor and get it up and running. It now takes about 11 years to go through all the government red tape, paperwork, hearings (featuring eco-radicals screaming and obstructing at every turn), environmental impact statements with more words than the entire encyclopedia Britannica, and other political baloney that it would take to get approval, before construction can even begin. Saving the planet today starts with using nuclear power instead of coal, as the transitional fuel to the tomorrow's totally clean and sustainable energy economy, whatever it may be.


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