As a kid in the 70s, we had a copy of the No Nukes LP and it was pretty popular in my home. My parents were very adamantly anti-nuclear power and the Three Mile Island accident in '79 did little to change their (or mine) minds. The horror of the Chernobyl disaster in '86 seemed only to further confirm the fears of those opposed to nuclear power.
I went all the way to Nevada to protest nuclear weapons testing when I was still in high school. It's hard to relate to anyone under the age of about 25 or so the very real fear many of us had in the 80s about what seemed to be the very real possibility of the world ending in a nuclear holocaust in our lifetimes. Of course, in our minds, the distinction between nuclear weapons and nuclear power was murky at best. What with Reagan, Andropov, SS-20s, the MX, the Minuteman, the Peacekeepers and Pershings - the idea the idea that my classmates and I had that we would never see age 30 (a very punk rock viewpoint to hold at the time, and at 16, I was all about the punk rock.) was pretty common.
More on the flip...
Check out this article from this month's Wired magazine:
How clean, green atomic energy can stop global warming
By Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reis
The consequences aren't pretty. Burning coal and other fossil fuels is driving climate change, which is blamed for everything from western forest fires and Florida hurricanes to melting polar ice sheets and flooded Himalayan hamlets. On top of that, coal-burning electric power plants have fouled the air with enough heavy metals and other noxious pollutants to cause 15,000 premature deaths annually in the US alone, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study. Believe it or not, a coal-fired plant releases 100 times more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor - right into the air, too, not into some carefully guarded storage site. (And, by the way, more than 5,200 Chinese coal miners perished in accidents last year.)
Burning hydrocarbons is a luxury that a planet with 6 billion energy-hungry souls can't afford. There's only one sane, practical alternative: nuclear power.
We now know that the risks of splitting atoms pale beside the dreadful toll exacted by fossil fuels. Radiation containment, waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not. Unlike the usual green alternatives - water, wind, solar, and biomass - nuclear energy is here, now, in industrial quantities. Sure, nuke plants are expensive to build - upward of $2 billion apiece - but they start to look cheap when you factor in the true cost to people and the planet of burning fossil fuels. And nuclear is our best hope for cleanly and efficiently generating hydrogen, which would end our other ugly hydrocarbon addiction - dependence on gasoline and diesel for transport.
Some of the world's most thoughtful greens have discovered the logic of nuclear power, including Gaia theorist James Lovelock, Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, and Britain's Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a longtime board member of Friends of the Earth. Western Europe is quietly backing away from planned nuclear phaseouts. Finland has ordered a big reactor specifically to meet the terms of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. China's new nuke plants - 26 by 2025 - are part of a desperate effort at smog control.
OK, you say, I'm listening. Good. There's more.
By contrast, nuclear power is thriving around the world despite decades of obituaries. Belgium derives 58 percent of its electricity from nukes, Sweden 45 percent, South Korea 40, Switzerland 37 percent, Japan 31 percent, Spain 27 percent, and the UK 23 percent. Turkey plans to build three plants over the next several years. South Korea has eight more reactors coming, Japan 13, China at least 20. France, where nukes generate more than three-quarters of the country's electricity, is privatizing a third of its state-owned nuclear energy group, Areva, to deal with the rush of new business.
The last US nuke plant to be built was ordered in 1973, yet nuclear power is growing here as well. With clever engineering and smart management, nukes have steadily increased their share of generating capacity in the US. The 103 reactors operating in the US pump out electricity at more than 90 percent of capacity, up from 60 percent when Three Mile Island made headlines. That increase is the equivalent of adding 40 new reactors, without bothering anyone's backyard or spewing any more carbon into the air.
Safer plants, more sensible regulation, and even a helping hand from Congress - all are on the way. What's still missing is a place to put radioactive waste. By law, US companies that generate nuclear power pay the Feds a tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour to dispose of their spent fuel. The fund - currently $24 billion and counting - is supposed to finance a permanent waste repository, the ill-fated Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Two decades ago when the payments started, opening day was scheduled for January 31, 1998. But the Nevada facility remains embroiled in hearings, debates, and studies, and waste is piling up at 30-odd sites around the country.
But throwing waste into a black hole at Yucca Mountain isn't such a great idea anyway. For one thing, in coming decades we might devise better disposal methods, such as corrosion-proof containers that can withstand millennia of heat and moisture. For another, used nuclear fuel can be recycled as a source for the production of more energy. Either way, it's clear that the whole waste disposal problem has been misconstrued. We don't need a million-year solution. A hundred years will do just fine - long enough to let the stuff cool down and allow us to decide what to do with it.
A handful of new US plants will be a fine start, but the real goal has to be dethroning King Coal and - until something better comes along - pushing nuclear power out front as the world's default energy source. Kicking carbon cold turkey won't be easy, but it can be done. Four crucial steps can help increase the momentum: Regulate carbon emissions, revamp the fuel cycle, rekindle innovation in nuclear technology, and, finally, replace gasoline with hydrogen.
Here's a fun fact: Spent nuclear fuel - the stuff intended for permanent disposal at Yucca Mountain - retains 95 percent of its energy content. Imagine what Toyota could do for fuel efficiency if 95 percent of the average car's gasoline passed through the engine and out the tailpipe. In France, Japan, and Britain, nuclear engineers do the sensible thing: recycle. Alone among the nuclear powers, the US doesn't, for reasons that have nothing to do with nuclear power.
Other proposals would create a global nuclear fuel company, possibly under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. This company would collect, reprocess, and distribute fuel to every nation in the world, thus keeping potential bomb fixings out of circulation.
Replace gasoline with hydrogen. If a single change could truly ignite nuclear power, it's the grab bag of technologies and wishful schemes traveling under the rubric of the hydrogen economy. Leaving behind petroleum is as important to the planet's future as eliminating coal. The hitch is that it takes energy to extract hydrogen from substances like methane and water. Where will it come from?
Today, the most common energy source for producing hydrogen is natural gas, followed by oil. It's conceivable that renewables could do it in limited quantities. By the luck of physics, though, two things nuclear reactors do best - generate both electricity and very high temperatures - are exactly what it takes to produce hydrogen most efficiently. Last November, the DOE's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory showed how a single next-gen nuke could produce the hydrogen equivalent of 400,000 gallons of gasoline every day. Nuclear energy's potential for freeing us not only from coal but also oil holds the promise of a bright green future for the US and the world at large.
The more seriously you take the idea of global warming, the more seriously you have to take nuclear power. Clean coal, solar-powered roof tiles, wind farms in North Dakota - they're all pie in the emissions-free sky. Sure, give them a shot. But zero-carbon reactors are here and now. We know we can build them. Their price tag is no mystery. They fit into the existing electric grid without a hitch. Flannel-shirted environmentalists who fight these realities run the risk of ending up with as much soot on their hands as the slickest coal-mining CEO.
There's obviously a lot to discuss here about a number of subjects. One thing that seems to be stifling any reasoned discussion here in the US is the ingrained, reflexive negative reaction many folks have to any subject containing the word "nuclear". A sidebar to the Wired story discusses this very topic.
I have plenty of questions and concerns myself. I'll admit that I don't think I would be terribly thrilled to live next to a nuclear plant. I also have profound concerns about safety and the storage of the waste produced by such plants. What I'm pretty certain about however, is that it's time to do something. And I think a reasoned discussion and exploration of nuclear power is a fine place to start. The article cited above will hopefully convince you of this as well.
Where does nuclear power fit in to the future of energy generation and consumption of this country and that of the rest of the world?