Faced with the reality of trying to power the world without carbon-emitting fossil fuels, a steady undercurrent of environmental opinion is beginning to acknowledge that nuclear power may not be so bad after all.
Several decidedly liberal publications have recently published lengthy articles taking a second look at nuclear. Then there is President Obama’s Clean Power Plan which, according to some sources at least, is giving nuclear one of the biggest boosts it has had in years by counting it among the acceptable resources. (Another line of opinion, however, says that the plan will encourage the retirement of existing nuclear.)
With Japan about to restart several of its reactors and countries such as China, Russia, South Korea and India moving ahead full tilt with nuclear construction, it appears that part of the world, at least, is overcoming its nuclear fears and moving to a new area of expansion of the technology.
Most notable in recent weeks in the United States was the publication of an article entitled “The Environmentalist Case Against 100% Renewable Energy Plans” by Julian Spector, an editorial staff member of CityLab, a division of The Atlantic Monthly. The Atlantic isn’t exactly a hotbed of nuclear power support but the article was so well received that it was reprinted in, of all places, Mother Jones.
Spector takes issue with the “100% Renewables” paper published earlier this year by Mark Jacobson, a professor of environmental engineering with the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford. The 100% project purports to show how all 50 states could be running on purely renewable energy streams – sunlight, wind and water – by 2050 without any contributions from fossil fuels, biofuels or nuclear energy. Now if this sounds impressive, remember that Paul Ehrlich, the Paul Revere of the Population Bomb, was and is also a professor at Stanford when he predicted the world would be experiencing mass starvation by 1990. Jacobson is sort of the Paul Ehrlich of renewable energy.
In Jacobson’s plan, the nation’s entire transport sector – 35 quads of energy ¼ of our consumption – is switched to electric vehicles. Yet at the same time he says our electrical consumption can be reduced from its current level by 39 percent. All this electricity can be provided by solar panels and windmills. He calls for 156,000 five-megawatt windmills offshore and approximately three times as many units on land. At the rate that today’s windmills are killing migratory birds, there probably wouldn’t be any falcons, hawks, eagles, cranes and condors left in the country. (Environmentalists always counter this by arguing that cats kill almost ten times as many birds, but these are sparrows, chickadees and other ground-dwelling species that are not endangered.) Jacobson’s plan may seem kind of absurd, but he has already persuaded New York and California to take steps toward implementing it.
Spector will have none of this. He asks the obvious question, “Why, if you are trying to eliminate carbon emissions, do you reject the power source that provides 70 percent of our emissions-free energy?” Jacobson answers with the usual prevarications about how in the manufacturing cycle nuclear produces more carbon than windmills. (This argument always assumes that uranium enrichment, the most energy-intense portion of the cycle, will be powered by coal instead of other nuclear. The manufacture and transport of 500,000 windmills, each taller than the statue of liberty, is going to produce a little carbon emissions itself.)
Frank Wolak, another Stanford professor, tells Spector: “Nuclear energy is an extremely reliable source of zero-carbon energy. It makes very little economic sense to phase it out, particularly given how successful the US nuclear industry has been over the past 30 years.”
Spector adds: “The irony of environmentalists cutting out nuclear in favor of primarily wind and solar is that these sources require much more transformation of the landscape to produce the same amount of energy. That footprint draws opposition from other environmental groups and people who just don’t want to live near wind turbines.”
Another vote in favor of nuclear comes from Celeste LeCompte, also an Atlantic writer, who published a story in June entitled “Is Nuclear Power Ever Coming Back?” LeCompte puts the spotlight on Mark Massie, Leslie Dewan and Russ Wilcox, three recent MIT graduates, who became enamored with nuclear technology and decided to do something about it. “We’re no longer studying 16 hours a day,” Dewan told his friends. “Let’s do something new and exciting.”
A little research led them to the molten-salt reactor, a design explored at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s but abandoned in the 1970s, probably because it produced no plutonium for the bomb program. “Among [the system’s virtues] were low operating pressure, passive cooling design, continuous operating during refueling, and low fuel and operating costs. . . . Traditional light-water reactors can claim none of these benefits.” The result was the founding of Transatomic Power, a company dedicating to developing a small molten-salt reactor. “In fact,” continues LeCompte, “the nuclear industry is undergoing something of a renaissance with a new generation of entrepreneurs, scientists and advocates who say they’ve found promising opportunities to drive down costs.”
The problem with all this is that these new ideas must undergo design approval at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a process estimated to take at least five years and costs $1 billion. "It’s a slow process, and the current challenge that innovators face is that there’s simply no supporting process in place for their new technology,” writes LeCompte. “Smaller plants with novel fuels and unusual characteristics are a square peg for the NRC’s round hole.
"For example, Transatomic Power’s reactor operates at normal atmospheric pressure, eliminating the need for the heavy-duty containment structures that drive up the cost of building traditional plants. But under the current regulations, they wouldn’t be exempt from building those structures ... [W]ithout some significant effort to establish [new] standards now, the NRC could become a bottleneck through which no new technology can pass."
All this shows that journalists are at last becoming aware that it is bureaucratic impediments and not real safety obstacles that are holding back a nuclear renaissance. When you compare nuclear’s stellar safety record – zero deaths from radiation exposure in 50 years of operation – with coal’s estimated 25,000 deaths per year from air pollution, it seems as if we should have made the transition a long time ago.