Archive for Sunday, August 20, 2006

U.S. should seek other power options

Does U.S. need more nuclear power plants?

August 20, 2006


— Nuclear power is getting its best press in years. More pundits are warming up to the peacetime atom than at any time since the 1970s.

As was the case 30 years ago, nuclear energy is gaining converts as energy prices spiral ever upward and America's reliance on Middle East oil goes unchecked. But the current swell of support for nuclear has more to do with the perils of coal than with oil.

Coal is America's most important fuel source for electrical power generation and it is responsible for more than one-third of the nation's carbon-dioxide emissions - pollution that promotes global warming.

When it comes to emitting carbon, nuclear power is cleaner, and that's just the first of many reasons to love nuclear, according to its backers. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, and an unlikely convert to the nuclear cause, urges that mining uranium is much safer than in years past, and that spent nuclear fuel is not so much waste as it is "potential energy" available for extra rounds of power generation. What waste remains, Moore contends, is not nearly so risky as commonly assumed.

"In 40 years," Moore and former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman write in a Washington Post op-ed, "used fuel has less than one-thousandth of the radioactivity it had when it was removed from the reactor. ... Imagine if the ratio of coal to nuclear were reversed so that only 20 percent of our electricity was generated from coal and 60 percent from nuclear."

Imagine indeed. For ample imagination is needed to embrace a plan that costs so much, promises so little in clean energy, and risks so perilously the country's national security.

More nuclear plants in the United States will not alleviate the global warming problem, so long as other countries roll out new coal-fired power plants. By some estimates, China commissions a new coal-fired power station every 10 days, even as it moves forward on ambitious plans to open new nuclear plants.

In the United States, hundreds of nuclear plants would be required to replace the current supply of electricity generated from coal. Siting even a handful, not to mention hundreds, of new plants would send attorneys on both sides of the debate back to school for refresher courses on plant commissioning; no nuclear power station has been commissioned in the United States in more than 25 years. Imagine nuclear waste stored at hundreds of surface sites at new nuclear plants around the nation.

The probability for a serious accident grows as opportunities to mishandle radioactive materials increase. More plants mean more chances for waste to seep out of temporary storage sites, or that somewhere, sometime, mistakes will be made processing, transporting, or simply keeping track of fissile materials. It's the latter problem that gives most grave pause.

As the United States ramps up nuclear power production, thereby generating greater amounts of reusable nuclear fuels and radioactive wastes, nuclear proliferation risks mount. The thousands of new jobs created to mine and process uranium, manufacture, load and unload fuel rods, and transport and store waste represent thousands of additional people with discretion over potent and greatly feared forms of energy.

A full-steam ahead plan for nuclear energy means millions of additional chances for radioactive products and byproducts to end up in the wrong hands. Nuclear power plants offer one-stop shopping for terrorists: they can be sabotaged or their radioactive contents can be siphoned for weapons.

These risks should urge us to keep developing alternatives to nuclear, be it wind energy, fuel cells, biofuels, reduced energy demand, deep injection of carbon dioxide, or any number of other plausible options. None of these options, alone, will solve the global warming problem, but nuclear power does not belong on the option list, period.

Matthew R. Auer is a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. Readers may write to him at School of Public and Environmental Affairs, IU, 1315 East 10th Street, Bloomington, Ind. 47405.


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