Steiner: Don’t jump ship on nuclear power

Bear Stearns is fine! Nuclear energy is dead!

Such is the sage advice of CNBC’s “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer. Unfortunately, the view that we should abandon nuclear power is having yet another resurgence in America following the accidents at two Japanese nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that hit that country earlier this month.

Fear of nuclear fallout in the U.S. or a disaster at a U.S. reactor is growing. While it is understandable for people to be worried following a nuclear accident, it is imperative that we keep these events in perspective. A future free from dependence on fossil fuels for energy as well as reducing the damage of climate change requires that we harness all available alternative energy sources, including nuclear power.

Nuclear energy generates immense quantities of electricity at prices already competitive with fossil fuel sources, and it does so without releasing greenhouse gases. It’s also both clean and safe. In over 50 years of nuclear power use, there have been only a handful of serious incidents from civilian nuclear power, and no major ones in the U.S. since 1979. Overseen by its own independent federal agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the nuclear power business is the most highly regulated industry in America and subject to very high safety standards.

Which brings us to the threat to nuclear power plants from natural disasters like we just saw in Japan. Japan’s current nuclear debacle is the result of a tsunami caused by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. The West Coast is the only part of the country that would possibly be hit by a major earthquake and tsunami. But it’s extremely unlikely that a major tsunami would occur off the West Coast. Massive tsunamis like the one that hit Japan are triggered when major earthquakes have their epicenters under oceans, where the tremendous force of the earthquake causes a tidal wave. These earthquakes occur along major fault lines, where two of the earth’s plates come together. California lies on several major fault lines, but none of these are offshore. Future major earthquakes in California will have their epicenters over land, meaning they will not trigger a tsunami that could threaten coastal nuclear power plants.

Even considering this minimal likelihood, adequate precautions have already been taken, such as the 30-foot high concrete tsunami wall present at the San Onofre reactor south of Los Angeles. For most of the country, the idea of earthquakes threatening a nuclear reactor is chimerical. No sizable earthquake is going to hit New York or Connecticut, for example. Sure, there are other threats to nuclear plants such as terrorism, but the benefits of nuclear power far outweigh any such risks.

Anti-nuclear activists often argue we should simply switch production over to renewable sources like wind and solar power and abandon nuclear power along with fossil fuels. While ideal in theory, that option lacks any real world viability.

The unfortunate truth is that we won’t be able to generate sufficient electricity from renewable sources for quite some time, if ever. Our need for electricity is so enormous that no single alternative source will be sufficient to meet those demands. If we want to eliminate fossil fuels from our energy repertoire, which should be our first priority, we simply can’t afford to be that picky about what alternative sources we replace them with. The future of electricity generation is neither wind nor solar nor nuclear alone, but a variety of alternative energy sources.

Nuclear energy does generate radioactive waste that must be disposed of, but the amount produced is tiny and can easily be sequestered. Compare that with coal and natural gas plants, which produce billions of tons of pollutants and greenhouse gases that cannot be contained and have long been known to have terrible effects on our environment and our health. Like it or not, opposing nuclear power is indirectly supporting coal power plants, and trading the very low risk of pollution from a nuclear plant for the certain pollution of a coal plant or the devastating effects of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Jim Cramer, among others, has predicted the death of the U.S. nuclear power industry. For the sake of clean energy and the “green” economy, let’s hope this prediction is as wrong as it is wrongheaded.

Alex Steiner is a sophomore in Berkeley College.


  • robert99

    I have heard that thorium can be used to generate electricity in a nuclear reactor without some of the undersireable side effects of uranium, whose use can lead to bomb-grade fissile material and that has a much longer half life than thorium. Anyone knowledgeable in the subject?

  • yalengineer

    I’ve seen some comments that the reason events, if anything, should be encouraging to nuclear power. An ancient, nearly retired 6 reactor plant got hit by a 8.9 magnitude earthquake, tsunamis, and has been out of power and despite all of that, there has only been a handful of possible cases of radiation sickness. Even if you include the unfortunate but numerous hydrogen explosion injuries, this pales in comparison to the number of deaths that directly come from coal or gas plants. The number of process controls and 10-sigma quality assurances in a plant is incredible.

  • gzuckier

    “adequate precautions have already been taken”
    Oh, well, that’s OK then. I imagine that in Japan, they were told before the incident “adequate precautions have NOT already been taken”, but foolishly failed to heed it.
    Re thorium reactors; yes indeed, the Liquid Fluorine Thorium Reactor (LFTR), the latest and greatest of the Molten Salt Reactors, which are cooled by, as the name suggests, molten salt (not table salt) of various kinds, rather than water; the generic advantage is that, rather than requiring electric power to cool them so they don’t blow up, they require electric power to keep them from shutting down; imagine what would have happened in Japan had the failure of the generators merely caused the reactors to shut down. The LFTR does have the advantages you mention, i.e. not generating bomb fuel and generating a much lower amount of high-level long-lived waste. In addition, thorium is plentiful, cheap, and (apparently, so far) nowhere near as nasty to produce as uranium ore or even coal; and the reactor is much more efficient in terms of fuel usage and power production, with the potential of mass producing small ones (with attendant economies of scale) for local generation, rather than constructing huge reactors for centralized generation (of which, basically every instance is an experiment, more or less).

    For the curious, the current situation is a historical accident, resulting from the roots of the peacetime nuclear power program in Admiral Rickover’s nuclear navy. The naval program was so successful that the civilian program was largely headed by Rickover’s underlings; they came to the job already convinced by the Navy’s excellent safety record that the water cooled reactor had been developed to the point of being a mature, safe, completely understood technology (when in fact a good deal of the success had to do with Rickover’s imposition of military discipline and personal responsibility). Thus, other technologies such as the Molten Salt Reactor and other promising candidates, such as gas cooled pebble bed reactors, were not given any R&D on the grounds that they needed more R&D, to paraphrase the official findings of the government commissions of the time. It’s as if they had taken executives from LawnBoy to design electric power plants, and the executives had come to the conclusion that they should just take lawnmower engines and scale them up a million times.

    That being the case, the entire industry having started off on the wrong foot and continued to pile complexity on complexity, it’s hard for me, at least, to regard any reassuring pronouncements they make as valid.