Being open-minded about nuclear energy by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Twenty-five thousand gallons a day of thick oil leaking into formerly pristine and productive waters. Thousands of goopy patches encroaching on four Gulf Coast states, threatening more. Birds black with oil. Local fishermen out of work. Cleanup workers struggling with toxic fumes and endangered long-term by exposure to chemical dispersants—which themselves have unknown environmental consequences . President Obama’s announcement that the well won’t be stopped for months. The impact of the environmental catastrophe, an estimated four times worse than the Exxon Valdiz disaster and the horrific results, according to the NY Times, will be felt for years. The bad news is unrelenting. Is it any wonder that people are starting to think favorably again about nuclear energy?

Wellesley College chemistry professor Nancy Kolodny, speaking to a group of alumnae last week, laid out a compelling case. The need is clear. Between now and 2030, the demand for electricity will nearly double. In the United States, we may have 104 nuclear plants, but they meet only a scant 20 percent of our electricity needs. France’s 58 plants generate more than 62 percent of that nation’s needs, and France even exports some nuclear-generated electricity, all clean, all apparently safe.

For 30 years there have been no new applications for nuclear plants in the United States, due largely to fears in the wake of the 1979 partial melt-down of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. People were evacuated, but the damage was more psychological than real, says Kolodny. No radiation leaked; no one was hurt. Since then, reactors have been required to adhere to stricter safety standards, including more stringent training of personnel, who have to be “retrained” every six weeks.

In the last two years, there have been 28 applicants for nuclear plants starting the long licensing process. Are we finally awakening to the potential and the need? China certainly has. Its map is dotted with nuclear power plants under development.

A 2003 study by MIT points out that the United States needs to do a better job at rationalizing the licensing process and developing geologically appropriate sites to dispose of spent rods. Of course, if Harry Reid loses his reelection bid, the burial site at Yucca Mountain might become available. Without that, supporters say that, in the interim, we can safely rely, as do the French, on deep pools constructed next to nuclear plants. Over the long haul, some smart scientist is bound to come up with exciting new ways to reprocess the spent fuel.

Start-up costs have been exacerbated by the length of the licensing process, particularly because the model of the 1970’s was to permit many different designs of plants. Uniform and tested designs could make the licensing process more efficient. And up-front costs of any new energy can be considerable. Even the wind-generated energy to be produced by Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound will be more expensive that traditional fossil-based fuels. Add the cost of environmental damage to the seemingly cheaper fossil fuels, and maybe nuclear will begin to look more attractive.

Nuclear isn’t a panacea. We will still need oil and gas for years to come. But we also need solar, wind and bio-mass. We need conservation, energy-efficient cars and appliances and effective mass transit. And we need nuclear in the mix. We are such a resourceful country. I am sure that the problems with nuclear can be solved, if we overcome inertia and are able to educate ourselves and discuss the issue rationally, free of the heavy hand of politics. Hmmmm. Maybe I’ve been breathing in too much polluted air.

– Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

3 Responses to Being open-minded about nuclear energy by Marjorie Arons-Barron

  1. Andrew says:

    Nuclear power is one of the most promising energy alternatives for both the US and the world. Quite frankly, the only relevant point is that nuclear is the only source of energy that does not produce greenhouse emissions that is ready to go. Solar, wind, geothermal – none are ready.

    There are some common misconceptions about nuclear power, which is why we haven’t been building any plants, the biggest of which is that plants are dangerous. In reality, there are entirely safe, is regulated adequately. Plants can’t explode; the only risk is of a meltdown that leads to a radiation leak. However, the French model provides the answer: they only build two types of reactors, making regulation easy. And I think this is an area where everyone across the political spectrum can agree that we want strong government safety regulations. The alternative is land that is uninhabitable for a few centuries.

    The big problem is obviously waste, but there are some potential solutions to that. Bill Gates has thrown his weight (and money) behind a new reactor design that would burn a different type of fuel. Incidentally, that fuel is what is currently produced as waste by the reactors we’ve already built. These reactors would actually produce no waste. Whether they will work or not remains to be seen, but Gates isn’t an idiot. It won’t be that long until the first one of these is built. Waste problem solved.

    There is always talk about nuclear fusion reactors. These are effectively impossible. We have no idea how to control such reactions. Actually, we have no idea how to induce a self-sustaining reaction. Practical experiments with fusion power won’t start until after 2020 and it’s doubtful that any such reactor will produce energy at a cheap enough cost this century.

    Any switch over to green energy will be costly, but Congress was holding hearings on climate change in the 1980s and has done absolutely nothing. It’s inexcusable that we didn’t start moving towards a green-energy economy in the 90s. And the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be. Even if the environment is not a concern for you, the world’s oil reserves will only last until mid-century. Then what?

  2. Margie says:

    Thanks very much for your thoughtful response. I got quite an interesting assortment of comments on my own blog page, mostly from people who don’t trust government to regulate properly. I found your reaction reassuring because it implies the possibility that government might actually do the right thing and hope that solutions will be found if people and institutions commit to the task.

  3. Righty Bulger says:

    If the BP incident teaches anything, it’s that nothing is foolproof. Accidents happen. We see what an environmental disaster the relatively safe oil drilling process can cause, A nuclear accident would be worse, affecting humans as much, if not more, than wildlife.

    There is a place for nuclear energy in our future. It’s inevitable. But please don’t tell us its safe. All it takes is one accident.