Saturday, April 22, 2006

The future of nuclear energy

Climate Change & Global Warming

Want Clean? Go Atomic!

by Max Borders

Nuclear power has gotten a bad rap. If there were ever a realistic alternative to burning coal and other fossil fuels, it�s atomic. And that is why it is time for us to start de-clouding some of the myths surrounding a mature, viable energy source that already produces nearly twenty percent of US electricity*.

One of the first blows against nuclear's image occurred during the Cold War era. Indeed, since most US power plants were built during the 60s and 70s, people who built fallout shelters during the Cuban Missile Crisis were understandably suspicious of atomic power-sources. Then came Chernobyl. The Ukrainian city, then part of the Soviet Union, will forever be remembered for the meltdown that occurred there in 1986, harming (and killing) thousands, with incidents of radiation poisoning, birth defects, and other unpleasant aftereffects.

Safe Energy

So, when someone mentions nuclear power, people often think of disasters. But the real risks of meltdown are remote, especially as new technology develops. (Today's advanced power plant designs will negate �accidental overheating or escape of radioactivity.�) American and western European nuclear facilities are safe, clean, and reliable, particularly when compared with other resources like coal and fossil fuel.

The United States currently operates 103 nuclear power plants, which averaged 91.2 percent capacity in 2002. Not only do these plants achieve outstanding rates of energy production, but nuclear power is able to produce electricity reliably and cheaply. Recently, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) endorsed nuclear power stating that, "Nuclear power has proven to be a safe, reliable, and reasonably priced source of electricity." With overwhelming evidence supporting nuclear power, we need to evaluate what is holding nuclear power back.

Expensive Investment, but Environmentally Friendly

While start-up costs present a major obstacle to nuclear facilities, perhaps the most contentious problem is safe, permanent disposal of nuclear waste. Environmentalists generally oppose the necessity of burying radioactive materials in underground storage facilities, since the substances can remain dangerous for thousands of years. However, when one compares the issue of nuclear waste storage against the pollution created by fossil fuels and the prospects of climate change, nuclear increasingly seems like a far superior alternative to carbon-based fuels.

As new technologies develop, we will be able to improve nuclear power production even more. For example, Pebble Bed Modular Reactors (PBMR) may offer a new alternative. PBMRs do not use water for coolants, but use helium. Instead of the disposal problem that the fuel rod presents, these reactors use �thousands of ceramic covered uranium �pebbles� encased in graphite spheres to feed the reactor.� This technology could reduce nuclear generated electricity costs by 50 percent, negate the need for massive water sources close to a plant, and ease any remaining tensions regarding potential plant malfunctions. (Read more about this new technology and others.)

Although there is some difficulty in mining uranium safely and cleanly, methods for mining uranium will improve as nuclear energy becomes a more popular alternative. Uranium extraction since the 70s has improved, as well, and some argue that dangers in mining uranium are small when compared with benefits associated with diminished use of fossil fuels, (especially as we wean ourselves from Middle Eastern oil).

Nuclear power releases no pollution (whether particulates or CO2) into the atmosphere. Furthermore, nuclear reactors do not damage surrounding wildlife, groundwater, or soil, unlike many other sustainable options. In short, nuclear is comparatively speaking very clean. And nuclear energy doesn�t deplete our natural resources, excluding small amounts of uranium.


Despite all of these benefits, no nuclear power plants have been built since 1973 in the US. Capital costs pose another problem. It takes a massive infusion of capital to build a nuclear facility�not least of which is due to regulations and government licensure for a new plant. However, as people begin to trust nuclear power again, federal and local governments will have to adjust to make it viable.

Nuclear power facilities are a costly and risky initial investment for many power companies, even though maintenance and operating costs are comparatively low. (The power just keeps flowing once a facility is built). Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) estimates that, �the price tag for a new light water reactor (LWR) power plant, like those currently in use in the US, would range anywhere from $2 to $6 billion.� Formidable capital costs have encouraged governments to back investments for nuclear plants in many countries. For now, it seems, fossil fuels may still be the cheapest way to start an energy company.

The Nuclear Solution

The US government is currently considering placing renewed emphasis on nuclear energy�both as a means to satisfy constituents� desires to become less dependent on foreign fuels, as well as to quell fears of global warming. Recent reports by the US Secretary of Energy Advisory Board detail some of the measures governments are reviewing to move back towards nuclear energy, including removing some of the regulatory costs and impediments to start-up. And recent technologies may bode well for the advent of smaller, cleaner facilities.

New technologies for nuclear power are making disposal and storage far less cost-prohibitive and a lot safer since the nuclear plant building boom of the 60s and 70s. Indeed, if nuclear can again become a popular energy alternative to fossil fuels, related technologies will become even better. Those who loudly decry our continued dependence on carbon-based resources must take a hard look at the nuclear energy option. Failure to do so will be a default vote for more coal-burning pollution, ineffectual solar and windpower, or greater dependency on filthy fossil fuels.

*Thanks to Steve Horwitz and his colleagues for this correction. The original version read "energy," but "electricity" is more accurate.

Max Borders is currently Managing Editor of TCS Daily.

Originally published on, February 2005

Industry & Ecology

Exploring Our Nuclear Potential

Part II of our series on exploring a nuclear future. (View Part I.)

by Richard Wolff

With the 35th anniversary of Earth Day recently passed, memories of slogans and bumper stickers like �split wood, not atoms� come to mind. Yet as we face rising energy costs and growing concerns over global warming, we soon face major choices.

When I was a Berkeley student in the 1960s, I was interested in nuclear power and took a course in nuclear engineering. I was surprised to find that the field was no longer �cutting edge� -- and came away with the impression that all the really hard problems had been solved.

We fully understood the basics of nuclear physics. What remained were incremental improvements and some concerns about the long-term effects of radiation on strength and stability of certain materials. This did not sound very exciting to me, and as a consequence I chose not to pursue nuclear engineering as a career, but rather completed my Ph.D. in astrophysics.

This turned out to be a good career choice -- but not for the reasons that I expected. The nuclear industry, at least in the U.S., has had a difficult history. The growth anticipated in the 1960s did not materialize. In fact, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the U.S. for more than 25 years.

What I did not anticipate, however, were the problems that have surfaced and still confront us today: nuclear waste management, environmental contamination, safety, proliferation, and terrorism, among others. Although once of little concern, these dangers cast doubt on the future of nuclear energy.

These are challenging problems. But are these projects worth pursing? Or should we simply abandon the prospects of nuclear power and seek other alternatives to the looming energy crisis? Do we have this choice? While the U.S. has eschewed nuclear power and continues to rely on fossil fuels, other countries have taken the path I abandoned at Berkeley.

And let�s face it -- the genie is out of the bottle.

Nuclear power plants abound in Japan and northern Europe, and are sprouting up in China, India, and other Asian nations. Whether or not the US exploits nuclear energy, other countries are. The questions it raises concern all of us.

Many readers may suspect that I am an anti-environmental mad scientist with an insane passion for nuclear energy -- and perhaps a lobbyist for the nuclear power industry as well. No way. As a scientist with a Green streak, I view nuclear energy as an option that we cannot summarily dismiss. It�s one of many options that we should use to address the global demand for energy. The Economist recently reported that in Britian, "the introduction of carbon-trading schemes should make fossil fuel generation more expensive, since companies will be forced to internalise the cost of their waste, something the nuclear industry already does�at least in theory."

In the broadest terms, we are already inextricably reliant on nuclear power; but thanks to a few of nature�s basic physical principles, we appreciate the benefits at minimal risk. Our sun is by far the biggest nuclear power plant in the neighborhood. Factors such as distance (93 million miles), the earth�s magnetic field, and its atmosphere protect us from most harmful radiation. Our entire ecosystem depends on this energy supply, either directly or indirectly. The energy we derive from oil and other fossil fuels, as well as wind power and solar panels, all relates back to the sun.

I propose that we take a more open-minded view to all forms of energy and work on the hard, compelling problems. Science and technology are agnostic. They can not only help us to understand the implications of alternative actions, but help us make ethical choices.

While nuclear energy has daunting technical and policy dimensions, ignoring the potential for nuclear is not a responsible option. A forward-looking, realistic energy policy must balance the political, economic, environmental, and safety concerns that currently obscure an effective discourse and impede our progress towards greater environmental health.

On the 35th anniversary of Earth Day, I�ve recycled my interest in nuclear power. I urge you to join me in exploring the multiple dimensions of its potential.

Richard Wolff holds the Gilhousen Telecommunications Chair in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Montana State University. He will be a discussion leader at FREE�s June conference on Entrepreneurship, Telecommunications, and Social Change.

Originally published on, April 2005


Getting Clean while Getting Small

Part III of a series on the future of nuclear energy
(Check out Part I and II of this series.)

by H. Sterling Burnett

Nuclear power has not been dormant since the accident at Three Mile Island 26 years ago. In fact, the 103 operating reactors in the US generate approximately 20 percent of the nation�s electricity. A number of factors imply that nuclear power�s share of the nation�s energy mix will grow.

Nuclear plants have dramatically improved the efficiency of producing electricity. In the 1980s, plants averaged 58.5 percent of rated capacity, today plants function at an average of more than 90 percent capacity. Indeed, the increased electricity produced by nuclear plants since 1990 could power 26 cities the size of Boston or Seattle. Operating costs have fallen from 3.31 cents per kilowatt-hour in 1988 to 1.7 cents today -- lower than either coal or, at 3 to 5 cents per Kwh, natural gas-fired plants.

Of course, operating costs are only one part of an energy facility's total cost. Historically, nuclear power has been expensive because of numerous factors, such as redundant safety mechanisms, constantly changing safety requirements, and the massive containment facilities required for reactors.

Fortunately, technological innovation and improved risk assessments have made it possible to produce modular nuclear plants with fewer, standardized parts. The cost of building these plants has fallen from a range of $2 to $6 billion to an estimated $1.4 to $1.6 billion. Although this is still more expensive than most other types of electricity generating facilities, nuclear power has low fuel costs; it�s one of the cheapest supplies of electricity.

Nuclear power could become even cheaper if emerging technologies prove commercially feasible. For instance, China and South Africa are building the world�s first commercial Pebble Bed Reactors (PBR). PBRs use helium instead of water to cool nuclear fuel, increasing efficiency and safety.

In addition, rather than using uranium fuel rods, PBRs use thousands of hardened graphite balls each containing 10,000 or so micro-fuel �pebbles� coated with tough silicon carbide. The expensive containment facilities typical in other reactors are unnecessary because a meltdown is impossible. PBR�s also should be able to extract several times as much energy from a ton of fuel than conventional reactors � which means less spent fuel needing storage.

Cost aside, energy security and environmental impacts make nuclear plants a critical component of a diverse electric power system. America has become increasingly reliant on imported supplies of oil and natural gas, two of the three fossil fuels used to generate electricity. Oil and natural gas prices fluctuate wildly, and supplies of these fuels may often depend upon instable regimes. By comparison, at current levels of use, accessible reserves of uranium can provide an estimated 300-year worldwide supply of fuel, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

One kilogram of natural uranium contains as much energy as 38.5 tons of coal, but only about 3 percent of that energy is utilized in conventional reactors. If the United States joined France and Japan in recycling used fuel, existing and future spent fuel rods would provide additional supplies of nuclear fuel. Even greater supplies of nuclear fuel can be made available from the more-than-15,000 plutonium pits removed from dismantled U.S. nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power has many environmental benefits. For instance, numerous studies indicate that various air pollutants contribute to thousands of premature deaths and illnesses annually. A significant portion of this pollution comes from fossil-fuel power plants. By comparison, nuclear plants produce virtually no air pollution. For instance, for every mega-watt hour (MWh) of electricity produced, nuclear power plants produce no sulfur-dioxide or nitrogen oxide emissions, while coal fired plants produce 13 pounds of sulfur-dioxide and 6 pounds of nitrogen oxides, oil fired generators produce 12 pounds of sulfur-dioxide and 4 pounds of nitrogen-oxides and natural gas fired plants produce 0.1 pound of sulfur-dioxide and 1.7 pounds of nitrogen-oxides.

In addition, if one believes that human-caused CO2 emissions from energy use are contributing to global warming, nuclear power is a CO2-free energy option. By comparison, for every MWh of energy produced, coal fired power plants produce 2,249 pounds of CO2, oil fired power plants produce 1,672 pounds, and gas fired power plants produce 1,135 pounds. This is why a number of prominent environmentalists have recently argued for increasing the role of nuclear power in the world's energy mix.

Nuclear power is not the solution to all of the world�s energy needs, but it is could be part of the solution. Nuclear power plants produce cost competitive, reliable flows of emission-free electricity. These factors make nuclear power worthy of serious consideration when shaping a thoughtful, comprehensive energy policy.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis, this paper is based on papers that he co-authored with Larry Foulke, immediate past president of the American Nuclear Society and is an NCPA E-Team adjunct scholar.

Originally published on, March 2005


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