Thursday, February 7, 2008

We need a renaissance of nuclear power

During the first Arab oil boycott in 1973, President Richard Nixon declared Project Energy Independence. Nixon promised an ambitious nuclear power program that would lead to 1,000 reactors deployed across the nation by the end of the 20th century. However, today only 104 commercial reactors are in operation within the U.S. and of these 48 were granted license extensions that are typically for 20 years beyond their original “useful life” cycle, and utilities have filed or plan to request extensions for another 33 plants; a far cry from the 1,000 nuclear power reactors anticipated.

In 1954, Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), issued a prediction that nuclear power would provide “electricity too cheap to meter.” However with no new reactors having come online since 1996 and with the rapid collapse of new construction in the 1980s, a nuclear revival would represent a return from the dead for the nuclear power industry.

Nuclear Power represents a realistic opportunity to reduce, but not eliminate, dependence on foreign oil. A significant number of electric power plants use oil as fuel for power generation therefore expanded use of nuclear power would enable power generation without need of oil as a fuel source. However, nuclear power has been regarded as a danger to the public because of some nuclear accidents and bad public relations precipitated by news media hyperbole.

For those taken in by global warming alarmists, it is also noted that fossil fuel-based electricity has been projected to account for more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Dr. John Deutch of MIT has said "In the U.S. 90% of the carbon emissions from electricity generation come from coal-fired generation, even though this accounts for only 52% of the electricity produced. Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions."

Environmentalists are also responsible for lack of respect for nuclear power. They exploit myths about nuclear power to discourage its use but all are false. Typically said is that nuclear power is “dangerous, wasteful and too expensive”. Here are the arguments against using nuclear power and the reasons these contentions are incorrect.

1) Uranium (a fuel for nuclear reactors) is running out

According to environmentalists, uranium reserves are ‘relatively limited’ and they say that a significant increase in nuclear generating capacity would reduce reliable supplies from 50 to 12 years.

In fact, there is 600 times more uranium in the ground than gold and there is as much uranium as tin. Even with no new major uranium exploration for 20 years, at current consumption levels the known uranium reserves are predicted to last for 85 years. Geological estimates from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that at least six times more uranium is extractable – enough for 500 years’ supply at current demand levels. Moreover, modern reactors can use thorium as a fuel and convert it into uranium – and there is three times more thorium in the ground than uranium.

Uranium is the only fuel which, when used, generates more fuel. Not only existing nuclear warheads, but also the uranium and plutonium in radioactive waste can be reprocessed into new fuel, which has been estimated to supply a significant portion of our electricity needs for many years. In short, there is more than enough uranium, thorium and plutonium to supply the entire world’s electricity for several hundred years.

2) Nuclear power is not a low-carbon option

Anti-nuclear campaigners claim that nuclear power contains ‘hidden emissions’ of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from uranium mining and reactor construction. But so do wind turbines, built from huge amounts of concrete, steel and plastic.

The OECD analyzed the total lifetime releases of GHG from energy technologies and concluded that, taking into account mining of building materials, construction and energy production, nuclear is still a ‘lower carbon’ option than wind, solar or hydroelectric generation. For example, during its whole life cycle, nuclear power releases three to six grams of carbon per kilo Watt hour (GC kWh) of electricity produced, compared with three to 10 GC/kWh for wind turbines, 105 GC/kWh for natural gas and 228 GC/kWh for lignite (‘dirty’ coal).

3) Nuclear power is expensive

As with all power generation technology, the cost of electricity depends upon the investment in construction (including interest on capital loans), fuel, management and operation. Like wind, solar and hydroelectric dams, the principal costs of nuclear reactors is in construction. Acquisition of uranium accounts for only about 10 per cent of the price of total costs, so nuclear power is not as vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of fuel as gas and oil generation.

Furthermore, like many existing power plants, any new reactor designs will have to be pre-approved for operational safety however construction costs will be less and they will produce 90% less volume of waste and have lower decommissioning and waste management costs.

4) Nuclear reactors produce too much waste

Contrary to environmentalists’ claims, the United States is not overwhelmed with radioactive waste and the ‘problem’ of radioactive waste is minimal. The largest volume of waste from the nuclear power programs is low-level waste – concrete from outbuildings, construction materials, and soil from the surroundings and so on. The amount of such waste comprises a relatively small volume to deal with. Production of all the electricity consumed in a four-bedroom house for 70 years leaves about one teacup of high-level waste and new nuclear construction will not make any significant contribution to existing radioactive waste levels for many, many years. Additionally, new technologies are being developed continually that will enable nuclear waste to rendered harmless.

5) Decommissioning nuclear reactors is too expensive

Existing reactors were built with no regard for future demolition. New reactors will be constructed from modular designs with the need for decommissioning built-in. The costs of decommissioning and waste management will be incorporated into the price of electricity to consumers. New nuclear plants are expected to have a working life of 40 years so the cost of decommissioning is spread over a longer period.

6) Building nuclear reactors takes too long

This is perhaps the most ironic of the anti-nuclear arguments, since the legal actions in court by environmentalists are actually responsible for almost all delays in expanding use of nuclear power generation and this opposition will cause most of the future delays.

The best construction schedules are achieved by the Canadian company AECL, which has built six new reactors since 1991; from the pouring of concrete to criticality (when the reactors come on-line), the longest construction took six-and-a-half years and the shortest just over four years. This schedule could be duplicated in the United States if law suits by environmentalists were not obstacles.

7) Nuclear reactors lead to weapons proliferation

More nuclear plants could actually reduce weapons proliferation. Atomic warheads make excellent reactor fuel; decommissioned warheads (containing greatly enriched uranium or plutonium) currently provide about 15 per cent of world nuclear fuel. Increased demand for reactor fuel would reduce the number of warheads potentially available to terrorists. Also, nuclear plant construction is closely monitored by the IAEA, which polices anti-proliferation treaties.

8) Wind and wave power are better sources of power than nuclear reactors

If, as environmentalists say, new nuclear power plants cannot come on-line in time to prevent climate change, how much less impact can wind, wave and carbon capture make? Environmentalists claim offshore wind turbines can make a significant contribution to electricity supply. Even if that were true – which it isn’t – environmentalists should realize the environmental impact disqualifies wind as ‘sustainable’. The extensive use of wind turbines requires the building of a huge industrial infrastructure and is often opposed by residents; the most famous of which is the opposition by environmentalist ‘champion' Ted Kennedy who opposed building wind turbines in his backyard.

Wave power is still highly experimental and unproven as a method of generating electricity and the costs and time delays make this possibility unrealistic and its problems make those of the nuclear industry look cheap by comparison.

9) Nuclear reactors are a terrorist target

Since 11 September 2001, several studies have examined the possibility of attacks by a large aircraft on reactor containment buildings. The US Department of Energy sponsored an independent computer-modeling study of the effects of a fully fuelled Boeing 767-400 hitting the reactor containment vessel. Under none of the possible scenarios was containment breached.

Only the highly specialized US ‘bunker busting’ ordnance would be capable – after several direct strikes – of penetrating the amount of reinforced concrete that surrounds reactors and this could not occur because our military would prevent it. Moreover, terrorists have already demonstrated that they prefer large, high visibility, soft targets with maximum human casualties (as in the attacks on New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai) rather than well-guarded, isolated, low-population targets. Any new generation of nuclear reactors will be designed with even greater protection against attack than existing plants, and with ‘passive’ safety measures that work without human intervention or computer control.

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard presented a number of recommendations which I believe should be considered for making the nuclear energy option viable. I have modified these recommendations a bit and if these recommendations are followed, nuclear power generation can become a reality.

  • Placing increased emphasis on the once-through fuel cycle (removing plutonium generation as a dangerous byproduct unless controlled) as best meeting the criteria of low costs and proliferation resistance;
  • Offering a tax-credit to private sector investors who successfully build new nuclear plants. This tax credit is currently extendable to other carbon-free electricity technologies and should apply to the nuclear industry as well;
  • Advancing a U.S. Department of Energy long-term waste management R&D program. Urging DOE to establish a Nuclear System Modeling project that would collect the engineering data and perform the analysis necessary to evaluate alternative reactor concepts and fuel cycles using the criteria of cost, safety, waste, and proliferation resistance;
  • Giving countries that forego proliferation- a preferred position to receive nuclear fuel and waste management services from nations that operate the entire fuel cycle, but under a “trust and verify” basis.

No comments: