Sunday, January 25, 2009

Overcoming Our Nuclear Fears

Where did the popular conception that Americans are afraid of nuclear power come from?

Are we actually reluctant to support nuclear power, or is it just that we've been told that we are supposed to be wary of it? Nuclear power is a "clean" technology, it's inexpensive for the return possible, it's safer than ever... and we're already using it across the country. There are 104 commercial nuclear generating units that are fully licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to operate in the United States - and four of them are in Texas, two each in Matagorda County and Somervell County.

We just learned in class that nuclear energy comprises eight percent of the U.S. energy portfolio (2004 data). Worldwide, nuclear is used even less (6.33% overall in 2004). Certain countries have it figured out a bit better - France, for instance, has nearly 77% of its electricity generated by nuclear power, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). And the French nuclear program is based on U.S. technology. If other countries were to promote nuclear energy technology as a major component of their energy portfolio, they would likely see a dramatic drop in CO2 emissions as well. Still, any country that has nuclear power capability also has nuclear weapons capability.

Looking at the homepage for the Nuclear Energy Institute, which features a happy family running across a green field and touts nuclear as "Nuclear: Clean Air Energy", I couldn't help but recall the infamous 1964 "Daisy" ad which scaremongered voters into supporting LBJ instead of Barry Goldwater, who had commented on the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. This ad (and others like it) were meant to evoke fears of nuclear weapon use. Coupled with those "duck and cover" drills my parents' generation experienced as schoolchildren, the end result was the same: a whole generation of Americans grew up fearing nukes - and thus anything nuclear. Then President Carter banned reprocessing of commercial reactor fuel in 1977 to avoid the risks inherent in recycling uranium's fissionable waste products into new fuel and thereby separating out plutonium. That kind of killed the U.S. nuclear power industry for a while.

While those my age and younger (essentially, the Millennials) may have other irrational fears created by the media, for the most part we don't seem to share older generations' reluctance to use nuclear power, and in fact may support it more because of the "clean technology" associations. We have no generational memory of Chernobyl, of Three Mile Island, or any other near-disasters. We know (or should know) that it is more dangerous to drive behind a tanker truck carrying gasoline than a truckload of spent nuclear fuel - no one's ever been injured by the latter, according to a PBS Frontline special examining our nuclear phobias. I'd rather have a nuclear plant in my neighborhood than a coal-burning plant, and that's not entirely because I'm a renter - I'm more freaked out by particulates in my lungs, and acknowledge that I'm already exposed to radon gas from naturally occurring radon in my home.

I'm very interested to see what President Barack Obama will propose regarding investment in nuclear technology - he said while campaigning that he "[doesn't] think that nuclear power is a panacea" for U.S. reliance on non-renewable energy sources, but that it is worth investigating its further development. (His opponent John McCain's energy plan proposed building 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030.) The new White House homepage doesn't outline anything relating to nuclear power in its "Energy and the Environment" section, but stated goals are to"create millions of new green jobs", "reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050" and "Make the U.S. a Leader on Climate Change". Investment in a U.S. nuclear energy future would nicely accomplish several of these agenda items.

And as for the waste storage problem? The NEI thinks they've got it figured out:

Components of an Integrated Management System:
  • interim storage of used fuel at a government-operated storage facility
  • advanced fuel reprocessing and recycling of used fuel to reduce the volume, heat and toxicity of nuclear waste and recover useful materials
  • permanent disposal of the byproducts of recycling and used nuclear fuel at a deep geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
Reprocessing is key to this waste storage plan, so the U.S. would likely need a pretty good PR campaign to make that sound less dangerous. Nuclear energy - from generation to use to waste storage - definitely has its risks, but with today's technology and capability, the potential for nuclear to fill many of our energy needs seems like a better energy solution than some of the other types of technology we depend on daily.


Anonymous said...

Great post! You bring up a lot of important points - most of which are overlooked when people talk about nuclear power. The old idea fears are subsiding, especially with our generation; we didn't really grow up with any nuclear scares.

I also agree that if we're serious about carbon emissions, we should be serious about nuclear energy.

Spivey said...

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), nuclear waste is stored in over 120 sites across 39 states in the U.S. For a map of these facilities go to: DOE.

Many of these storage sites are located near large population centers. For example, one is located upriver from New York City. From a national security perspective, I would much rather store our nuclear waste in one, remote location where security (and cost) can be cosolidated.

Regardless of how you perceive the quality of GQ journalism, this is a pretty interesting article about the Three-Mile Island meltdown and the Yucca Mountain Repository: Meltdown

rob goates said...

I agree with McCain on the fact that many more nuclear plants should be built. There are many things that people can worry about, but nuclear power should not be one of them. In my opinion, Obama doesn't need to waste time figuring out other energy options without at least moving forward with nuclear foundations for the time being. The notion that it would create a number of new jobs is enough of a reason to go ahead with nuclear plans. I honestly don't think that nuclear waste storage sites should be issue of concern at this point in time. I would think terrorists have much bigger targets in mind.

This was a great post. I really like the statistics that show how safe nuclear power is in relation to other everyday occurrences. In regards to politics, I voted for McCain because I felt he had better views on issues similar to this one. However, I think and hope Obama will realize what is best for our country's energy issue. Who knows...maybe he knows how to dissolve shale and we can just keep pumping out that black gold.

Emily said...

Thankfully, Americans are slowly warming up to nuclear power. Right now, 17 new nuclear power plants have been approved to be built by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many others are under review Of course, it would be great if the number of nuclear power plants approved for construction were greater than 17.

I am a little disappointed with Obama's views on power. I've seen him mention "clean" coal a few times, but in my opinion, nuclear power is a far better option.

contango said...

I think that a lot of the historical problems with building Nukes had tot do with the licensing process. The process was timely and unpredictable. I think that there are several reasons for the recent increase in applications but an important one that should not be overlooked is the much needed revisions to the licensing process.