As of January 2012, China is building 26 new nuclear power plants (and plans 51). Russia is building 9, India six, South Korea five, Canada three. Even Japan’s troubled industry is building two. In the US, there is exactly one new reactor complex being built.
France gets 80% of its power from fission. Most major nations have used nuclear power to make their environment cleaner and their economies less vulnerable to $100/barrel oil. Yet the US remains in superstitious dread of fission… even while dependent on the 20% of our electricity that comes from our 40-year-old Homer Simpson specials.
US Nuclear Industry: From Pollyanna to Panic
The US built the first nuclear reactors. We even built the first nuclear rocket engines, way back in the misty pre-Internet days of the 1960s. (It was misty from all the coal and high-sulfur diesel smoke). Why did we turn into a nuclear backwater? Because the US government “helped” nuclear power with subsidies and special favors.
The US government shoved nuclear power into use in the 1960s, before it was ready for prime time. Early reactors and their fuel were subsidized, and the Price-Anderson act dumped the liability for accidents onto the taxpayers. (Taxpayers do seem to attract liability for everything from subprime mortgages to shaky foreign dictators, don’t we? It’s a wonder we can get insurance at all…)
Then, once US nuclear technology actually became reliable and safe, US policy turned against it. Our new electricity needs are now met almost entirely by frantic construction of fossil-fuel plants, while we talk and talk about the potential problem of Global Warming from those very fossil-fuel plants.
US nuclear power was killed by media-generated fears. Most of those fears were imaginary, and all were exaggerated. But hype still trumps the actual numbers. Let’s have a hard look at the current realities of nuclear power.
Not Your Grandfather’s Reactor
The first hard fact about switching to nuclear power: it reduces your radiation exposure. Nuclear power plants, even old ones, release very little radiation. In fact, they release between 100-400 times less than coal plants, per kilowatt-hour. (There is a significant amount of radium and polonium in coal smoke). A tax refugee gets more radiation by defecting across the Maple Curtain from Vermont than they would by living next door to a reactor for their whole life (manly NH granite is full of uranium and thorium, unlike the soft, limp sediments of Vermont).
So the net environmental effect of US anti-nuclear policy has been… to raise our radiation dose for the last 30 years. But don’t worry; compared to the tons of mercury and vast quantities of organic chemical carcinogens released by the coal smokestacks, the trivial extra radiation from coal doesn’t matter. Of course, in addition to cancer there is the little matter of Global Warming. Nuclear plants are entirely carbon-free (which will be a good thing in a few centuries, once we get enough CO2 into the atmosphere to stave off the Final Ice Age).
Current nuclear plant designs are also meltdown free. There are several ways to make nuclear fuel rods or pellets that stop fissioning when they reach a certain temperature. The US built the first intrinsically safe experimental reactor in 1986, the Argonne EBR-II. The Argonne system used fuel rods made of an alloy that expanded with heat to beyond critical density. Newer designs have used pebble beds and Doppler scattering, but the result is the same: fuel elements that shut off over a certain temperature, even if Homer Simpson (or a tsunami) turns off every cooling system.
Yet another breed of new nuclear plants uses cooling systems which use convection instead of pumps; again, even if everything is switched off, they can’t overheat. The Westinghouse AP1000 uses this principle. (The former Westinghouse nuclear division is now owned by Toshiba, a company that thinks more than one fiscal quarter ahead.)
Other concepts include small mass-produced reactors like the Hyperion or Toshiba 4S. These town-sized (only 25 to 30 megawatt) units would be more decentralized than most current fossil or nuclear generators. They would also have passive safety features… in fact the reactor itself is a sealed unit, with no way for Homer to get inside. The Toshiba 4S only has to be refueled every 30 years.
The US has none of the newer, safer plants yet (the one reactor complex under construction in Georgia is an AP1000). Yet just like the ex-Soviet satellite nations, we remain economically dependent on our aging 1970s reactors (e.g. Vermont Yankee, commissioned November 30, 1972). Again, our anti-nuclear policy has put us at more risk than other nations.
No Recycling Allowed
Then there’s nuclear “waste”. Nuclear fuel rods are about 3% uranium-235 when they go into a light-water reactor. They quit producing energy when they are roughly 1% uranium, 1% plutonium, and 1% radioactive elements like strontium-90 and cobalt-60.
In other countries the rods are removed from the reactor, the uranium and plutonium are recycled into new fuel rods, and the other radioactive elements are used by industry for various purposes. Excess non-fissionable isotopes can be mixed with Pyrex glass and made back into radioactive “rocks”… which, after all, is what uranium ore is in the first place.
But in the US, no nuclear recycling is allowed because of Carter-era regulations. Used but radioactive nuclear fuel rods must stay in open ponds outside the reactors just in case terrorists might need some. Thus the US has a “nuclear waste problem”, while other nations do not.
“Peak Uranium” A Long Way Off
Currently known reserves of uranium are enough for a couple hundred years or so… enough that no one puts much effort into finding more. Breeder reactors can make more uranium out of thorium; estimates of thorium reserves get us up to 20,000 years. By the year 22,211, fission reactors will be in museums next to the flint-knapping tools. The lights will stay on from fusion… or more likely, something we haven’t even imagined.
Even on a shorter time scale, nuclear fuel cycles are very stable. Once fueled, a reactor will run for years, independent of possible wars, blockades or interruptions of trade. Trade is a good thing, but it’s nice to have 30 years to figure out where to get power plant fuel, instead of living hand to mouth with oil and gas tankers.
Obama: Nuclear OK As Long As It’s Taxpayer-funded
On February 16, 2010, President Obama announced $8.33 billion dollars in federal loan guarantees to construct the two AP1000 units at the Vogtle plant in Georgia. This continues a long tradition of meddling and favoritism (in other countries, we call giving tax money to private companies “corruption”). Corruption of course knows no technological boundaries; all forms of power production have been distorted by subsidy.
Time for a Level Playing Field
Nuclear power is the cleanest rapidly expandable source of electricity. It produces no greenhouse gases, no acid rain, and no chemical pollutants. It doesn’t need ecologically disruptive dams. It doesn’t cover up thousands of square miles of forest with solar panels, it doesn’t kill migrating birds with eyesore windmill blades.
But is new nuclear technology better than other alternatives? That is the question that matters, and it can only be answered by the market. Let all power technologies compete against the same safety and emission standards, and all be liable for any damage they cause. Let coal plants have to meet the same radiation emission standards, and let non-subsidized solar plants pay for the forest land they cover up (and for their own capital costs).
Since the Congress and Administration can’t seem to find anything to cut from our $1.6 trillion+ deficit, here’s a suggestion that would save a few billion: cut all corporate welfare to all forms of energy companies. Government bureaucracy is no more likely to pick the right technology now than in the 1970s, when they decided to leave the US forever dependent on burning coal... or in 2009, when the DOE gave $535 million to Solyndra. Which, of course, still leaves us dependent on burning coal.
The “right technology” depends on time and place. Solar cells are fine, if they’re covering buildings in Albuquerque instead of snowy forest in Vermont. Windmills, wood-burning plants, methane from cow pies; whatever can pull its weight on the market is great.
But neither windmills nor wood chips can produce enough power to protect our planet’s environment and turn other planets green as well. A hundred years from now, He-3 tankers will be bringing fusion fuel across the Solar System to keep us warm on cold New Hampshire nights. The stars run on nuclear power, and so will our grandchildren’s civilization.