Nuclear Energy: Let's Not Repeat Our Mistakes

| 1/20/2010 3:32:45 PM

Tags: nuclear energy, oil crisis, oil prices, energy efficiency, green transportation, electric cars,

Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station 

In the 1970s, America was immersed in an oil crisis. Domestic production had peaked and the severe restrictions on supply imposed by OPEC in 1973 (aimed at forcing us to be more frugal) and the Iranian Oil Embargo in 1979 drove prices through the roof. Oil shot up from $3 per barrel to $34 per barrel.

Americans waited angrily in long lines at the gas pump while inflation reached double digits! Our economy took a serious nose dive. One of America’s brilliant responses to the energy crisis was to build nuclear power plants. I say brilliant, but, of course, that’s tongue in cheek. Building new nuclear power plants to solve the oil crisis was like running out of margarine, then running to the store to buy a dozen eggs. We needed oil stupid, not electricity.

After spending billions on new nuclear plants, America slowly woke up to the folly. Many nuclear power plants went belly up during construction, and lots of people who’d invested in bonds to support the construction of these ill-conceived plants lost a fortune.

I’m afraid we’re doing much the same today. During the Bush Administration, pronuclear interests began using the high price of oil (our newest energy crisis) to justify the construction of new nuclear power plants, and they continue to do so. Their work is paying off!

As in the 1970s and early 1980s, we don’t just need more energy, we need replacements for oil and transportation fuels derived from petroleum. The most economically and environmentally sustainable solution though, I think, is to drive more efficiently, lower speed limits on Interstate highways, to drive much more efficient vehicles, and to walk, bike, or ride the bus or light rail. We should also develop sound, sustainable transportation fuels like biodiesel and ethanol to help meet our needs.

2/4/2010 10:56:37 AM

Continued: ….of fuel will have little effect on the low cost of nuclear energy. Which brings us onto to: “We've got to realize that nuclear electricity is the most expensive form of conventionally produced electricity in the world. Nuclear Power plants cost upwards of $6 billion -- five or six times more than coal.” So is that why the French have some of the cheapest electricity in Europe? Just because the capital cost of building a nuclear plant is high does not mean the cost of running one is high. They chuck out huge amounts of energy for very little fuel, and run as a business (like they do in France) rather than a research facility (as some in the US and UK have), they to can be run economically. More cheaply than coal or wind. “And let's not forget that we haven't found a way to safely store the high-level radioactive waste yet. So why embark on a strategy that is going to produce more high-level waste that remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years.” This is out of date. The waste issue has been solved. An international multi-disciplinary team has inspected the Swiss approach to the question, and their efforts have been found to be up to the task of long term disposal of HLW (using deep stable solid rock storage). But lets go back and look at why your statement is incorrect. Spent nuclear fuel can (and should) be reprocessed. The residues, and the fuel that can no longer be reprocessed must be disposed of, but its radioactivity will drop below the level of the uranium ore with less than 500 years. This is easily engineered to be safe, and encased in glass (as many do), and these small quantities will not escape into the environment. Even if it did (which it can’t), it would take thousands of years to reach any groundwater, let alone aquatic life as it’s so far underground. Even the US has been trying out salt mines to store it, as they self repair to prevent escape into the environment (the UK uses salt mines for certain hazardo

2/4/2010 10:34:42 AM

"A lot of people think that because nuclear power plants don't produce carbon dioxide, it is a perfect answer. We have to develop an energy strategy based on more than that?" It also doesn't emit a whole host of pollutants into the atmosphere unlike coal, including sulphur, uranium, particulates.... "Do we have the Uranium-235 to fuel nuclear power plants? From everything I've read, we're near the peak of uranium production " Put it this way- when nuclear power initially took off, there was a surge in prospecting for uranium. When demand fell off due to politics (and not much else), there was no need to look for more, as the mines that were developed had decades of uranium left. Now demand is set to increase, more prospecting will be carried, and just like every other resource that's dug ouut of the ground, we'll find it. Even if we struggle to find new reserves, we have alternatives, such as reprocessing (the US hasn't for decades), weapons (can you think of a better use for them), certain types of coal ash (see weapons). And of course, the refinement process could get much more efficient, as they have managed to use laser rather than centrifuge. Coupled with the more efficient designs (see previous comment), the consumption of uranium is not a direct correlation with the increase in the number of new reactors built. Also, of course, the cost of uranium is only a small fraction of the cost of nuclear energy, so an increase in cost.....

John Adams_2
2/2/2010 1:25:13 PM

The argument that "Nuclear power can help reduce our dependence on foreign oil” actually IS valid. Seventy percent of our petroleum use is for transportation. As I said in an earlier post, we do like to talk up electric cars around here. The large-scale use of these vehicles would reduce our need for foreign oil. The catch is that we will need more electricity to charge up all of those batteries. So where will we get our power? What is available today? Coal : 49% Natural Gas: 21% Nuclear: 20% Everything else combined: 10% Since “everyone” hates coal, we’ll need something. Nuclear could fill that void – but it ain’t gonna be cheap.

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