Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Nuclear Option

If you have read my columns in the past, you probably know that I am not convinced that humans are the principal cause of climate change. Moreover, the policies under consideration such as Cap and Trade and the UN Copenhagen Treaty will likely do nothing to alter the earth’s climate, but could very well result in a lot of people freezing in the dark.

But, the question that keeps coming back to me is why doesn’t the United States of America go nuclear? Whether or not you believe in human-caused climate change, nuclear power has the potential to be a full-time, zero-emission, safe, reliable, and significant source of electric power. And because we have a lot of uranium ore here in the United States, like coal, it can be a power supply that decreases our dependence on foreign oil. And with about half of the world’s supply of uranium ore residing in Canada and Australia, going nuclear significantly reduces the number of dollars funding terrorist sponsoring countries in the Middle East.

Nuclear power currently provides the United States with about 20% of our electric supply. In France, it supplies about 80% of the electricity.

Nuclear power can provide abundant electrical supplies and it does not stop when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining. It does not result in development phenomena called energy sprawl nor does it require extensive new transmission line development.

Contrary to current American mythology, nuclear power is safe. I remember the rather blunt message on a bumper sticker back in the height of uranium production in the early 1980’s in Wyoming. “More people have died in the back seat of Ted Kennedy’s car than have died from nuclear accidents in the United States.” While albeit a bit nasty, it makes the point—no one in the United States has died from a civilian nuclear accident in the last 40 years.

America virtually stopped constructing nuclear power plants after the infamous Three Mile Island plant’s partial meltdown in March of 1979. Though only a partial meltdown, some radioactive material escaped the confines of the facility resulting to doomsday predictions of higher cancer rates and deaths to be associated with the accident. However, a report released by the presidential commission, appointed to investigate the Three Mile Island accident, concluded that "there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same conclusion applies to the other possible health effects." Several epidemiological studies in the years since the accident have supported the conclusion that radiation releases from the accident had no perceptible effect on cancer incidence in residents near the plant.

Of course, the facts about the benign nature of the accident were overshadowed by the hype and hysteria of anti-nuclear activists. This anti-nuke mood was exacerbated by Hollywood which had coincidently released a nuclear power accident thriller “The China Syndrome” just weeks before the Three Mile accident.

Then came the reactor explosion at Russia’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. There was a massive release of highly radioactive material and a radioactive plume traveled over Eastern Europe eventually resulting in radioactive rain as far away as Ireland. This horrific accident was not a complete surprise to observers of the USSR’s nuclear program. Safety was never a priority for the Soviets and one has to wonder about the capacity to construct safe nuclear power plants in a country that could not even make a toilet that flushed properly.

Nonetheless, the 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization, attributed 56 direct deaths and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra cancer deaths among the approximately 600,000 most highly exposed people. While any loss of life is tragic, by comparison, deaths resulting from Chinese coal mine accidents numbered nearly 37,000 from 2000 to 2005, averaging 6,151 dead miners per year!

Even if we get past the red herring of nuclear accidents, the anti-nuclear folks will tell us that the nuclear waste disposal is too hot to handle, no pun intended. Currently, nuclear power plants in the United States produce about 2,000 ton of nuclear waste each year. Compare that to the 230 million tons of municipal waste disposed of each year, a staggering 4.6 lbs. per person per day. This is arguably not toxic waste, or is it? Have you ever thrown out old paint cans, pesticide bottles, household chemical containers, or perhaps worst of all, unused pharmaceuticals?

By applying existing nuclear fuel rod reprocessing technology, the United States could reuse the 2,000 tons of annual nuclear waste, generate more energy, and greatly reduce the amount residual waste as well as significantly reduce the time the reprocessed waste remains radioactive. The remaining waste can be safely stored in steel/concrete containers. I will always remember when a company proposed constructing a temporary spent fuel rod storage facility near Moneta, Wyoming, back in the 1990’s right in the heart of some of the richest uranium deposits in the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission expressed concerns about the project because the naturally occurring background radiation levels exceeded their allowable standards.

Since 1987, proponents and opponents to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository have argued about the safety of nuclear waste storage. Through the loyal opposition, future nuclear power plant construction has been stifled until the United States addresses the issue of nuclear waste disposal. During this same twenty year time frame, nuclear power plants having been storing their nuclear waste on site, often in or near urban areas, and without any detected leakage, harm to humans, or any other life form. In the meantime, we wonder if the most studied mountain on the planet and should be developed at all. Yucca Mountain, the United States’ only Congressionally designated long-term repository for nuclear waste, is composed of geological material that is suitable for long-term nuclear waste storage. It is part of an Air Force operations area that includes the site of 904 atomic bomb tests between 1945 and 1992, and is 80 miles from the nearest population center, Las Vegas, Nevada. In order to address the long-term storage of nuclear waste, we need to move forward with the development of the Yucca Mountain deep geological repository.

Nuclear power is the only non-carbon-dioxide-emitting method of generating electricity that could ever come close to replacing coal, oil, and natural gas in the United States. Wind and solar will never generate the amount of electricity that America needs to power our homes, businesses, and industry, nor will it ever be as reliable as other more traditional sources of power. America needs to get past Three Mile Island, the nuclear waste issue, and utilize zero-emission nuclear power to generate electricity. I say this because America needs safe, diverse, reliable, and stable supplies of energy. I do not support the vain and anti-human agenda that attempts to address a naturally occurring climate cycle that most likely cannot be stopped anyway. But, if the climate change debate is to serve any good purpose, it should be to shock us out of our nuclear phobia and back into the Atomic Age.

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