Nuclear power is the regrettable third rail of American energy policy. The environmental lobby has knee-jerk concerns about waste and pollution, the dirty power lobby is concerned about competition, and the public is irrationally concerned about safety. None of these issues makes particular sense for the environment or the public interest; in fact, they have stifled any innovation or improvement in nuclear technology since the 1950s. The U.S. may have written the book on nuclear technology, but right now the only area where we lead the world is in the manufacture of nuclear weaponry.
This state of affairs is unfortunate, because America needs nuclear power now more than ever. Coal-fired power plants, the most primitive form of electricity generation, still account for over 50 percent of production. Pollution from coal power plants kills tens of thousands of people and costs our economy billions of dollars annually. Natural gas is somewhat of an ecological improvement, but because of supply limitations, it would be uneconomical and probably disastrous to replace half of our generating capacity with natural gas. Environmentalists are dreaming if they think the widespread adoption of solar power is feasible, and we’ve basically exhausted our large-scale hydroelectric resources. Wind power is a promising solution, but it creates unsightly backyards, and geographic factors make it unsuitable for large parts of the country.
Our energy problem is only likely to get worse over the next 30 years, and for two reasons. First, existing nuclear and coal power plants are reaching the end of their lifetimes; as they come offline, we will be forced to replace them. Second, the expected (and welcomed) shift to hydrogen-powered vehicles will vastly increase demand for electricity. Extracting hydrogen from any of its naturally occurring sources (such as water, biomass or hydrocarbon fuels) is an electrically-intensive process. Of the available solutions, only nuclear power — or the construction of dozens of new coal or natural gas power plants — satisfies projected electrical demand over the next 20 years.
Fears about the safety of nuclear power are fundamentally irrational, and are based on two accidents that had little or nothing to do with nuclear technology itself and everything to do with gross mismanagement. At the time of Chernobyl, the Soviet Union was having trouble producing working tractors, let alone safe nuclear power. Three Mile Island, the largest nuclear disaster in the United States, resulted in zero casualties and negligible environmental impact. Since Three Mile, changes have been made regarding the type of monitoring systems used in nuclear plants such that a similar disaster would be virtually impossible. The United States — through the Navy — operates more nuclear reactors than any other country, and no American has ever been killed by nuclear energy. Pollution from coal power plants, on the other hand, kills tens of thousands each year, but these rarely draw a crowd of protestors the way nuclear power plants often do.
This isn’t the case in the rest of the developed world. A recent article in The New York Times, for example, highlighted France’s long-standing commitment to nuclear energy. Twenty-five years of engineering refinements have made France the world’s leader in safe, clean, commercial nuclear technology; the French derive 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear power (in the United States, it’s about 20 percent). By contrast, the United States last built a commercial nuclear plant in the 1970s. Our existing plants are mostly 1960s vintage, less safe and less efficient than European, Japanese and Chinese reactors.
It comes as little surprise, then, that the biggest leap forward in reactor design comes from abroad. Normal nuclear reactors consist of a set of fuel rods that are raised or lowered to control the reaction. A water-cooled version of this design was perfected by the U.S. Navy in the late 1940s; well-suited to submarines and warships, it is less practical for land-bound reactors. A competing type — also invented in the 1950s but relegated to the margins for years — uses small pebbles of fuel instead of rods, and high-pressure inert gasses instead of relatively reactive water. Recently, scientists at Tsinghua University in Beijing went back to the pebble principle to perfect what is known as a pebble-bed modular reactor.
The reactor prototype, now up and running, is what its creators call walk-away safe: A few months ago, the scientists running the project turned off the coolant system and walked away. Rather than explode in a radioactive inferno, the pebble-bed reactor cooled down by itself. The secret lies in the pebbles, which instead of solid fuel are mixtures of graphite, uranium flecks and silicon carbide. They expand as they heat up, pushing flecks of uranium within the pebbles farther apart. At a certain temperature — well below the melting point of the pebbles — the uranium flecks end up far enough apart that the reaction stops. The pebbles have a shelf life of one million years, eradicating the problem of storing waste. Because of our irrational fear of nuclear power, the U.S. gave up one of the greatest advances in energy technology of the last 50 years.
It is imperative that we end our reliance on coal power, which is both a menace to the environment and to public health; it is equally important that we end our reliance on gasoline by switching to hydrogen fuel for automobiles. Before we do either, however, we must adopt a feasible strategy to satisfy our demand for electricity. In spite of nuclear energy’s bad rap, it is the best option. We need to embrace recent technological developments such as pebble-bed reactors and invest in perfecting some improvements of our own. In the past 20 years, the rest of the developed world has adopted safe, clean and efficient nuclear energy. It is time we joined the club.
L. David Peters is a senior in Davenport College.