Sunday, August 12, 2012

Nuclear Power Schizophrenia

By Alan Caruba

It should come as no surprise that environmentalists oppose the use of nuclear energy in the same way they oppose coal or the fracking technology that is unlocking huge new reserves of natural gas. Currently nuclear energy provides about twenty percent of the electricity used in the U.S. Their attack on coal—led by the Obama administration—has driven its use down from just over fifty percent a few years ago to about 47% today.

Nuclear energy was initially welcomed as a new source of electricity. The first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States was opened by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on May 26, 1958 as part of his Atoms for Peace program.

According to Wikipedia, “As of 2011, nuclear power in the United States is provided by 104 commercial reactors (69 pressurized water reactors and 35 boiling water reactors) licensed to operate at 65 nuclear power plants, producing a total of 0.806 TWh of electricity, which was 19.6% of the nation's total electric energy generation in 2008".

"The United States is the world's largest supplier of commercial nuclear power.”

Despite the hype surrounding the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 there were zero injuries to either the plant workers or anyone in its vicinity and there have been no comparable incidents since. The meltdown of Japan’s Fukashima nuclear facility in July 2011 was the result of an earthquake and a tsunami. Still, the fears that surround nuclear facilities were stirred including claims that radiation might reach the United States which have since proven to be baseless.

Nuclear power was back in the news in early August when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced it would stop issuing licenses until it can address problems arising from its nuclear waste policy that was the subject of a recent federal appeals court decision. It will not affect the current nuclear plants or those under construction any time soon, but it will surely affect the expansion of nuclear energy in the future.

The problem is that there are not enough nuclear waste store facilities for future needs and the reason for that is political, not a lack of capacity to build them. The classic example of this is the Yucca Mountain repository, a Nevada site that residents of the state opposed because they allege that they were not sufficiently involved in the decision to build it.

Congress selected Yucca Mountain in 1987. Nevada quickly sued to stop the project. Leading the fight was Harry Reid, currently the Senate Majority Leader. In the end, the Obama administration and Congress decided to abandon Yucca Mountain after investing $8 billion and twenty-five years of research and study. This is a study in stupidity.

By contrast, for the past decade, 7,000 shipments of radioactive nuclear waste have been sent to a repository in Carlsbad, New Mexico which since 1999 has received 60,000 cubic meters of waste. The difference between Nevada and New Mexico stems from a “not in my backyard” mentality that has nothing to do with the safety of such facilities.

The fact remains that, if the U.S. is to utilize nuclear energy, it is going to also have to store its waste. Moreover, many of the nuclear plants are getting older and are being targeted for campaigns to close them by environmental organizations.

A case in point is Indian Point, located in Buchanan, New York, 38 miles from New York City, that generates more than 2,000 megawatts of electrical power, thirty percent of which is used by New York and Westchester County. Its initial 40-year operating licenses are scheduled to expire and the NRC was going to grant a twenty-year extension.

Over the past decade, the NRC has granted extensions for 73 of the nation’s 104 reactors and applications for an additional 13 reactors were pending before the NRC until the court’s decision focused attention on the need for waste facilities. A reactor must be in service for 20 years before an application may be filed. The court’s decision could delay licensing decisions for a year or more until the issues involving waste storage facilities can be resolved. It will not result in any plants being shut down.

In January 2010, a letter signed by several dozen engineers and scientists was sent to President Obama’s science advisor, Dr. John Holdren. It warned that “the world is leaving us behind.”

“At present, 58 new nuclear plants (including two fast reactors, one in Russia and one in India) are under construction in 14 countries. Of these, 20 are in China, 9 in Russia, 6 each in India and South Korea. Only one is in North America, and that is resumed work on a plant that was mothballed in 1988 when it was 80% finished.”

“France has just announced a $7 billion commitment for a “sustainable development” program that includes promotion of fourth-generation nuclear reactors — (three of which being fast neutron reactors) a technology in which the United States was once the world leader.”

“Our nation needs to proceed quickly — not twenty or fifty years from now — while the people who pioneered this science and engineering can still provide guidance to a new generation of scientists and engineers. There is no political, economic or technical justification for delaying the benefits that nuclear power will bring to the United States, while the rest of the world forges ahead.”

A kind of schizophrenia surrounds the issue of waste storage because Americans need more electricity production at a time when the government is forcing the closure of the coal-fired plants through regulatory coercion by the Environmental Protection Agency and while local politics is making it difficult to site the waste storage facilities needed if nuclear power is to continue providing one fifth of all the electricity presently in use.

Nothing good can come of this if the insanity of closing coal-fired plants continues and sites for nuclear waste storage are not constructed.

© Alan Caruba, 2012


Ed Hering said...

We wouldn't have a problem with the accumulation of spent nuclear fuel if we were allowed to recycle it.

Carter put a stop to that during his administration. Bush 43 undid Carter's executive order but of course after some thirty-odd years, the fuel recycling industry in the US was no more.

TexasFred said...

Regarding nuclear waste; Iran is always crying about wanting nuclear power, right?

Well, let's just power up some cargo planes and drop OUR nuclear waste on Tehran...

Just a thought...

Unknown said...

Nuclear power I hace mix feelings, on one hand you get a stable source, you could recycle fuel up to a point. Plants have a long life span, they get people working (and not the kind that works at a Wallmart)

Then there is always the subject of the 10,000 year life of byproducts, not to mention that they are dangerous.

And then you come to the issue of the Elephant in the room: accidents. You say 3 mile Island 0 fatalities I say luck. See Chernobyl or Fukushima, things went horrible wrong, but something could have gone right and the reactors being save. Casualties? Those come after a generation or two, in the meantime you get your classic government cover ups.

My main issue with nuclear is that nothing is a 100% safe, but and accident at a coal plant or a refinery gets dwarfed by the magnitude of a nuclear accident.

Harry Dale Huffman said...

Storing nuclear waste was always a poor long-term solution, so I share that concern, and hope for recycling. And way back in the 8th grade (1961, and my first physics class), I was struck by the lack of real mastery of nuclear energy, in having to use it basically to heat water to run a steam engine(!) But my larger view is somewhat like Alan's:

Schizophrenia and Cancer in the System Today

Unknown said...

Cost of electricity for three
sources according to the DOE, $ per MWh:

Coal: 99.6 (no carbon sequestration).

Nuclear: 112.7

Solar photovoltaic: 156.9.

Granted that solar is more expensive, efficiencies for conversion of photons to electrons,
batteries, and inverters are low. They will increase if smart people work on the problem.

Fear of nuclear waste is not irrational, while for coal, men must be sent underground to do the worst job in the world.

Unknown said...
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