Monday, March 1, 2010

Nuclear Power Misconceptions

With the President backing nuclear development last week, many opponents of nuclear energy have publicly criticized the move for several reasons. However it is time to address ideas and stereotypes that originated in the 1970’s and understand why nuclear power is a big step towards good environmental and fiscal stewardship in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal had a great editorial in Saturday’s paper but I am going to add and expand on some of the points that William Tucker made in his article.

Nuclear power is not safe. The truth is that nuclear power might be the safest energy source in the world. There have been two incidences of nuclear accidents. First was the Three Mile accident when a faulty cooling valve caused a meltdown of a reactor without injuring anyone. All reactors in the US now share all information on reactor malfunctions to avoid any accidents. Many lawsuits and false claims of higher cancer rates have continued to circulate since the 1979 accident. However, there has been no proof of radiation contamination in the area and all lawsuits have been rejected due to lack of radiation contamination.

Then there is the infamous Chernobyl disaster in the former USSR satellite of Ukraine. This reactor accident stemmed from the USSR military performing tests on the incredibly crude reactor. The reactor did not have a protective shield and the staffed that manned the plant were not trained on nuclear power. To make matters worse the military took safety features built into the reactor and turned them all off. The resulting malfunctions lead to a steam explosion that killed two workmen. Over the next several months 30 operators died from radiation poising. This could have been avoided if the workers had protective emergency suites or if hospitals knew how to treat radiation poising. But the USSR was not known for caring for its citizens. The only long term health consequences has been 200 cases of thyroid cancer in which 12 children have died since 1990. The reactor was nothing like reactors anywhere else in the world and cannot be an example of what might happen to Western reactors.

Nuclear power is too expensive. As William Tucker points out in his article, each 1,500-megawatt rector costs around $5 billion, this might seem expensive until you compare it to the equivalent capacity in wind power. You would have to build 4,000 windmills at $1 million dollars a piece and then build hundreds of miles of transmission lines and then the equal amount of capacity in natural gas generators to back the wind power up when the wind does not blow. The cost of the windmills alone is $4 billion and does not include the new power lines or backup gas plants. We are trying to cut down on CO2 but we still have to use it with wind? Lets do some math. As of the end of 2009 wind generates 35,000-megawatts of power or 1.9% of all US power. If it takes 4,000 windmills to make 1,500-megawatts then almost have 100,000 windmills in the US. To power the US with wind it would take almost 5 million windmills and this would all have to backed-up with gas and coal when the wind does not blow in areas. 5 million windmills x $1 million = $5 Trillion plus a new grid plus equal amount of backup power. Rough stuff.

Nuclear power plants could be used by terrorists. This is crazy for two reasons. First, nuclear power plants cannot be turned into nuclear bombs it is just not possible. Second, the concrete safety shells protect from attacks inside or from the air or ground. Search “Plane crashes into wall.” There is no threat from terrorist.

Nuclear Waste cannot be taken care of and lasts thousands of years. This is only true in the United States. The rest of the world recycles their waste and it not only produces almost no radioactive waste but does not have to be stored in a mountain. Reprocessing reduces waste by 97%. For example the French have been reprocessing their fuel for thirty years and the thirty years of waste is kept in a one room basement under the La Hague plant. France has been powered by 70% nuclear for over 30 years.

Reprocessing will lead to nuclear proliferation in other nations. Even if other nations could steal our left over waste in the US plutonium has never been a good source of nuclear bomb material. In addition, many nations have now built bombs without stealing from our waste piles so this is really a mute point.

In closing, there is really no reason the US cannot become a leader in nuclear energy in the next decade and cut all coal and oil power from the country. We can produce less co2, decrease acid rain and other side pollution from coal and oil. We can mix in wind and solar because nuclear power is a great back up for those energy sources and with the money save we can finally upgrade the grid and maybe even move towards electric cars. This can be accomplished in the next decade if we allow it to. No other energy source can provide that. If climate change is going to kill us and the polar bears by 2050, we cannot wait for wind and solar to find a way to store energy for long periods of time. Nuclear is the way to go, I just hope fear does not stop progress.

“Obama’s Nuclear Power Breakthrough.” The Wall Street Journal 02/27/2010 A15
“Chernobyl Accident.” The World Nuclear Association.

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