Barack Obama has tirelessly read from the teleprompter about America’s urgent need to reduce its reliance on foreign oil and the growing demand for alternative renewable energy sources, green jobs, and such. Surprisingly, nuclear energy — the one technology that could help the country meet all of his energy objectives — had until recently received only political footnotes in the president’s agenda. Sadly, when he mentions the word “nuclear” it is usually followed by the words “non-proliferation” rather than “clean energy.”
The usual excuses given for avoiding the nuclear answer have worn quite thin. Arguments involving safety or vulnerability to terrorist attack seem to have fallen by the wayside. The safety record of new nuclear technology renders such Jurassic objections quite obsolete.
The poster children for the anti-nuclear crowd — Three Mile Island and Chernobyl — have also been mothballed, along with the technologies which made them possible. The 1979 Three Mile Island mishap represented a series of improbable errors and failures — both mechanical and human in nature — yet few realize that there were no injuries or deaths. What’s more, the local population of 2 million people received an average estimated radiation dose of about 1 millirem — miniscule compared to the 360 millirems per year the average American receives in simple background radiation — the equivalent of a chest X-ray. Since then, however, a number of technological and procedural changes have been implemented by industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make a similar mishap virtually impossible to reoccur.
The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl involved operators who inexplicably chose to deactivate automatic shutdown mechanisms to carry out an experiment. The problem was that these prehistoric reactors lacked fully enclosed containment buildings, a basic safety installation for commercial reactors in the U.S. Of the approximately 50 fatalities, most were rescue workers who entered contaminated areas without being informed of the danger.
The only remaining argument against nuclear power — where to store spent nuclear fuel — also has a solution. Every year, the nation’s 104 nuclear plants create about 2,200 tons of nuclear waste and store them in storage containers located beside cooling towers across America. At 120 locations in 39 different states, a total of 66,000 tons of used radioactive fuel is stored in concrete containers out in the open and vulnerable to the world. Clearly, it is better to consolidate the nuclear waste we already have at one site than leave it scattered above ground at nuclear reactors across the country. Nuclear power deniers argue that we have no place to go with this dangerous but renewable waste, but we do.
After 20 years of research and testing, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain has proven to be a geologically stable facility capable of supporting its intended function of securing and storing spent nuclear reactor fuel. Spent pellets will be stored in sealed, retrievable casks that can be safely monitored to ensure they are sealed and no hazardous material escapes.
New technology allows us to now separate plutonium or fissionable uranium from spent nuclear fuel and recover more than 90% of the useable fuel. The Yucca Mountain design neatly allows casks to be retrieved at a later date when reprocessing becomes the most efficient source of enriched uranium. Even the transportation process for shipping all of the waste has been tested without incident.
Yucca Mountain has been tested for seismic activity and even an unlikely earthquake will not cause any rupture of storage casks. There are multiple 26-foot diameter tunnels connected with railroads and robotic engines to move storage casks. Its original design has a capacity of 77,000 tons of waste, but includes provisions to more than double the capacity. This is enough storage to last for generations without reprocessing, and for over 1000 years with reprocessing.
Solar and wind power are not solutions to our current energy problems — and will not be in the foreseeable future. Solar panels are expensive and fragile. Each photovoltaic panel is only about 40% efficient and the initial cost of the panels is high and the return small. In order to produce solar energy the sun must be shining and there are significant problems with energy storage. The problem is a lack of continuous sunlight, not weak technology.
Wind power isn’t much better. The space needed for so-called “wind farms” can seriously alter the environment and wind power does not generate very much energy for the price. Denmark has over 5,000 turbines that produce about 19% of what the country uses, yet no conventional power plant has been shut down in that country. Because of the intermittency and variability of the wind, conventional power plants must be kept running at full capacity to meet the actual demand for electricity. People still need power when the wind isn’t blowing. To make matters worse, recent protests from a growing number of Danish neighbors of wind turbines have stopped future wind power projects in their tracks and made local politicians reluctant to approve licenses.