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Written by Brandon King   
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Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Nuclear Power

President Barack Obama recently announced that his administration has “approved an 8.3 billion dollar loan guarantee”1 for new nuclear power plant construction. This loan will go to Southern Company, which will build two advanced reactors2 at a plant in Georgia—the first ones built in the United States since 1976. Those supporting the Obama Administration’s decision cite France—which generates 75% of its electricity from nuclear power plants3 and is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity—to support their argument that nuclear energy is economical and safe. Others have serious doubts about the radioactive waste produced by generating nuclear energy. They argue that until a long-term storage solution comes to be, nuclear energy is too big of a gamble.

Currently, the 104 commercial power plants in the U.S. generate about 20% of the nation’s energy.4 Most of the other 80% comes from fossil fuel-powered plants. Alternative energy composes “just a fraction of the domestic energy portfolio,”5 with wind at only 1% and solar at less than two-tenths of a percent (for more on wind power: By 2020, “fossil fuel based electricity is projected to account for more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions.”7 In terms of CO2 emissions, nuclear power plants will be guilt-free by comparison, as they do not directly produce any carbon dioxide, nor any “sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or mercury.”8 Nuclear power plants do require tons, literally, of cement and steel—both ‘dirty’ materials that require a lot of energy to produce—to safely contain their radioactive contents, but they are carbon-free once operational.

Coal plants send fly ash into the environment surrounding the plant. This fly ash carries “100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.”9 For those of you living under a silo’s shadow, don’t worry—the risk of getting struck by lighting is 3-4 times greater than any “radiation-induced effects”10 from fly ash. The point here is that the radiation received by those nearby to either coal plants or nuclear plants is an insignificant amount, and even those of us living nowhere near these still receive radiation from sources like the Earth’s crust and the cosmos. In spite of our exposure to these low levels of radiation, we have yet to turn into a nation of “spidermen” and women, and unless we start bathing in plutonium, we won’t, although popular depictions of all things nuclear might have us believe otherwise.

In 12,700 cumulative “reactor-years of commercial operation in 32 countries”11 there have been two major accidents. The first of these accidents occurred on Three Mile Island in 1979 when a U.S. reactor was severely damaged after a series of mechanical and human failures.12 While the radiation was contained and no lives were lost,13 the incident at Three Mile Island has had a huge influence on nuclear policy in the U.S., effectively turning popular opinion against nuclear power for three decades. The second event occurred in the former Soviet Bloc in what is now Chernobyl, Ukraine. A steam explosion and subsequent fire destroyed a nuclear reactor, killing 31 people (the death toll has since been increased to 56)14 and turned the city of 14,000 into a ghost town overnight.

A nuclear reaction leaves spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive nuclear fuel that is no longer capable of sustaining a nuclear reaction. Also called high level radioactive waste, this is the “uranium, plutonium, and other highly reactive materials made during fission”15 that come from the nuclear reactor’s core.16 Spent nuclear fuel contains radioactive isotopes that emit large amounts of radiation; some of these isotopes have half-lives longer than 100,000 years.17 Clearly, spent nuclear fuel demands a very long-term storage solution, but the U.S. has yet to develop one.

However, the United States does have a sound short-term storage option called “dry cask storage.” This involves first immersing the “radioactive used [fuel] rods in helium or another inert gas.”18 The rods are then encased in a steel container that is further encased in a concrete cask. Currently, almost all dry casks are held under the site which produced them. With the “more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year”19 produced in the U.S., and the “roughly 64,000 metric tons of radioactive used fuel rods” already in storage, creating a viable long-term storage space is becoming increasingly important.

A second option involves recycling (reprocessing) fuel, because “plutonium and other reusable fission products” can be separated from the waste. However, plutonium could be a target for terrorist organizations looking to create nuclear weapons. More relevant is that it is simply not an economically viable solution at this moment, nor will the "reprocessing of spent fuel… be cost-effective in the foreseeable future."20

Until this year, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain appeared to be the “country’s likely spot for holding spent nuclear fuel.”21 However, little progress was made after its 1987 designation as the federal geological repository for nuclear waste, and earlier this month the Obama administration eliminated funding for Yucca Mountain altogether in its budget proposal. For the time being, spent nuclear fuel will continue to be safely stored under the plants which produce it, but a permanent long-term solution will be needed if we are to continue operating and building nuclear power plants under the Obama Administration. This long-term solution could be in space, beneath the seabed, or beneath land,22 but for the moment it is nowhere at all.

Nuclear power will not solve America’s energy woes. Neither will solar power. Neither will wind power. The long-term solution is a change in habits. A change to local sources of food. A change to smaller, more efficient vehicles. A change to less electricity consumption. We should not seek to live wasteful lives in a more efficient manner, but to live more efficient lives in general. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to understand that ‘clean’ energy isn’t really clean if it powers the same old dirty habits.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 October 2012 )