Nuclear power offers clean source of energy

With ongoing global negotiations to address Iran’s nuclear capabilities, we’ve heard quite a bit lately about nuclear power’s capacity as a weapon. North Korea has also been the subject of much defense speculation, earning United Nations sanctions for test launches held in recent years. Amid all the talk about nuclear power’s menacing threat, it is important that we do not forget about its tremendous potential for high-quality energy production in a low-carbon society.

The 2011 generator meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan sparked an international wave of anti-nuclear sentiments that, in countries like the United States, has resulted in the decommissioning of many nuclear generators. Such decisions are troublesome. Though safety and waste disposal issues must be addressed, it is important that we not rule out this clean and efficient source of power as a substantial component of tomorrow’s energy mix.

Among the U.S. generating stations that have been taken offline in recent years is the Vermont Yankee plant along the Connecticut River, which permanently ceased operations in January. This closure came on the heels of closures at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California, which once provided electricity to 1.4 million homes, and the Crystal River plant in Florida. Utility companies have cited high maintenance and repair costs, made all the more extreme by booming competition from natural gas, as the impetus for these closures. But an active civil movement in opposition to nuclear power has also encouraged these shutdowns.

Opponents to nuclear have vocalized concerns over the dangerous radioactive waste that results from the nuclear fissioning process. Wastes have a half-life of many tens of thousands of years. Because most radioactive substances require 10 half-lives to achieve safe levels for human exposure, nuclear waste requires hundreds of thousands, even millions of years of storage and confinement. For years, federal regulators attempted to negotiate a plan to store the country’s nuclear wastes at a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Immense objection by Nevadans, however, eventually collapsed the plan, and currently all nuclear waste is stored at the sites of its generation.

But a new frontier for nuclear energy is in the works. Laboratories around the country — usually situated in sparsely populated areas like Idaho Falls, Idaho — are working to perfect new reactor technologies that substantially reduce the amount of waste produced and use sodium, not water, as the primary coolant in power generation. New safety mechanisms are continuously evaluated and installed. In fact, in 2011 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated that the chances of an earthquake in tremor-prone California damaging the reactor core of the now-defunct San Onofre power plant were one in 58,000. The construction of plants fitted with cutting-edge technologies could greatly diminish the already low chances of an accidental radioactive release.

Continued use of nuclear power will also diminish our reliance on the conventional fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Climate scientists are in nearly unanimous agreement on the human origin of current global warming. Because nuclear energy does not depend on the combustion of fossil fuels, it is a promising source of electricity as the global community seeks to minimize its emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Computer modeling conducted by the British Meteorological Office concluded that the only course of action in achieving a manageable climate scenario — less than 2 degrees centigrade warming — demands the deployment of nuclear power.

Though nuclear power has historically polarized environmentalists, the remarkably low chance of a radiation leak cannot stand against the remarkably high promise of zero-carbon energy, especially at a time when our decisions about energy-use will be critical in determining the trajectory of man-made climate change.

Austin Reagan is a junior majoring in environmental studies and political science. His column, “The Scientific Method,” runs Mondays. 

10 replies
  1. Maureen Roy
    Maureen Roy says:

    1) In any discussion online about nuclear power, it is necessary for each of us in this discussion to state whether we have any financial connection with either the nuclear industry or the antinuclear community. I have no such financial connection with either side. 2) Nuclear energy is clean? Not so, based on a) the surprising amount of carbon released when the entire nuclear fuel cycle is considered, and b) math figures (trigonometry) from the writings of noted radiation chemist Theodore Rockwell, who worked alongside Admiral Rickover on nuclear power, that explain why 100% containment of ionizing radiation is not possible, and that therefore both fission and fusion reactors leak deadly ionizing radiation 24/7. Nuclear power is therefore not clean power. (Note: That Rockwell source is: Creating the new world: stories & images from the dawn of the Atomic Age.)

  2. Jag_Levak
    Jag_Levak says:

    Sodium cooled reactors are one kind of alternate form of nuclear power being explored. So are lead cooled, gas cooled, and fluoride salt cooled reactors, liquid fuel reactors, and several kinds of fusion reactors.

    Present nuclear reactors are an important part of the fight to limit the growth of coal and gas generation, but they aren’t cheap enough to halt their growth altogether, much less shrink them. They also don’t compete with oil. For that, we’ll need reactors cheap enough to make synthetic fuels cost competitive, and small and versatile enough to replace large ship engines.

    Calculations of earthquake risk to a reactor depends on assumptions which we can’t directly assess. If you look at everything that went wrong at Three Mile Island, the odds would have been astronomically against that particular combination of faults and failures. But here’s a curious thing about odds. If enough highly improbable events are possible, the odds of one of them happening can become probable. That’s why a dart can hit the side of a barn, even though the odds were enormously against it hitting the exact spot that it did.

    We can, however, say the odds of a liquid fuel reactor melting down is essentially zero under any circumstances. Ditto for the odds of a pressure rupture in an ambient pressure reactor. So while I would agree that present-day reactors have a relatively good safety record, I would also like to see them rendered obsolete and replaced with better reactors. And the sooner the better.

  3. GRLCowan
    GRLCowan says:

    Let’s apply Reagan’s summation of nuclear waste to another hazard: salt. “Salt has a half-life of forever. Because most chemical toxins require 10 half-lives to achieve safe levels for human exposure, salt requires ten-times-forever storage and confinement.”

    And yet, there were saltshakers in the *Titanic* when it sank. Reagan’s rule would imply that we’ll never be clear of their threat (of losing containment and lethally salting the ocean).

    Could it be that some consideration of the initial level is necessary, before applying the ten-half-lives rule?

    • Jag_Levak
      Jag_Levak says:

      I think I would have used the example of bismuth 209–which we consume in Pepto Bismol without waiting even one half-life.

  4. cpapermaster
    cpapermaster says:

    Producing nuclear energy heats the planet, kills marine life (in the case of using ocean water to cool nuke plants like at Diablo Canyon in California) and the radioactive waste can kill all life on earth. You seriously consider that “clean energy”?

    • PoloniumMan
      PoloniumMan says:

      You’re really into hyperbole, aren’t you? The radioactive decay of naturally occurring K-40 in the earth’s crust generates more heat than worldwide primary energy consumption. To expose all life on earth to the radioactive material in nuclear waste would require more power to aerosolize and disperse the material than is available from the radioactive decay.

    • Jag_Levak
      Jag_Levak says:

      Solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface averages 173,000
      terawatts. Total human global energy consumption currently averages
      less than 20 terawatts. Solar heating is a vastly larger effect than direct heating by human activities.

      If nuclear is used to displace coal, every unit of waste heat from the reactor corresponds to more than 100 cooling units in the form of greenhouse gases not emitted. What we really need is much hotter reactors. The hotter they are, the more efficiently they can turn that heat into work. Geothermal generators add more waste heat per unit of electricity than nuclear because they are colder and less efficient.

      Don’t like spent fuel? How about we burn it up in reactors that are specifically designed for that task? Maybe we could also get rid of a few thousand warheads that way while we are at it.

    • Jortiz3
      Jortiz3 says:

      Please review the energy budget of the atmosphere and compare the total energy from sunlight to the energy consumption of humans and never utter the first point again.

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