Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006 | It will no doubt surprise you to know that the United States is the largest producer of electricity from nuclear power in the world. And that represents only 20 percent of its electricity production. France produces almost 80 percent of its electrical energy through nuclear power, making their famous high-speed TGV trains economically feasible. In the United States, 80 percent of electricity is generated by petroleum, coal, natural gas and hydroelectric sources. Among these, coal is by far the worst environmental pollutant. Studies by the Harvard School of Public Health indicate that coal toxic wastes cause at least 15,000 U.S. premature deaths a year. It will surprise you even more to know that in addition to sulfur, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and a whole host of other toxic substances such as mercury that contaminates fish, coal-fired power plants are also a major source of radioactive releases into the environment.

In fact, Richard Rhodes, the author of landmark books on the history of nuclear development and Denis Beller, a nuclear engineer and technical staff member at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “The Need for Nuclear Power, Foreign Affairs,” Vol 75 pp. 30-44 [2000] have calculated that “a 1,000 megawatt-electric (MWe) coal-fired power plant releases about 100 times as much radioactivity into the environment as a comparable nuclear power plant … The uranium released by a single 1,000 MWe coal plant in a year includes about 74 pounds of uranium-235 – enough for at least two atomic bombs.” Of course it would be complex and expensive to isolate that uranium, and plutonium could be bred from that coal-derived uranium as well, and that it could actually be done.

If the San Diego reader, who is burdened by the highest electricity rate in the nation, accepts what I write here, the first question is likely to be: If this is true, why has nuclear power suffered such disabling political and economic disadvantages in the United States? Here are some of the reasons:

  • Existing laws force nuclear utilities to engage in lengthy and costly licensing procedures and make very expensive investments not required of coal-powered plants;
  • If coal utilities had to meet the same criteria of safety as nuclear power ones, the cost of electricity derived from burning coal would no longer be cheaper than nuclear generated electricity. But there were other even more cogent reasons for the strenuous resistance to nuclear powered plants in the United States, and the fault is attributable in great part to the nuclear power industry of the time.
  • Following World War II, nuclear power loomed large with a bright future in the United States. The word spread that nuclear generated electricity would be so cheap that it would not even have to be metered. This is a preposterous example of how nuclear power in the United States was so outrageously oversold. The cost of making electricity from every resource is but a small fraction of the cost of distributing it.
  • Four companies competed for the building of U.S. nuclear power plants. They were Babcock & Wilcox, Combustion Engineering, General Electric and Westinghouse. All of them had to learn how to build them virtually from scratch.Unfortunately, antitrust laws and misplaced competitive pressures made it impossible for these companies to exchange information, and the learning curve of each of them had to be replicated the hard way, by repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
  • The result was nothing short of a spreading economic disaster. The cost of building these plants, some with expensive defects, escalated out of control and a few never went on line.
  • The accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979 although well contained, doomed the U.S. nuclear power industry for decades to this day.

The conclusion has to be that nuclear power has an important role to play in the future given the forecast of escalating power consumption worldwide. Earth warming will soon demand that there be a stop to the pollution from the burning of petroleum, coal, natural gas and biomass. The renewable resources are not renewable without serious environmental penalties. Hydroelectric power, for example, is hardly renewable when the dams inevitably silt-in. Solar, wind and geothermal sources are very dilute forms of energy collection requiring them to be concentrated to yield costly usable energy. Making photovoltaic cells for solar collectors, making concrete, transporting it and pouring it for windmills, make profligate use of energy and generate pollution.

Replacing the 80 percent of non-nuclear energy now consumed in the United States alone with “renewable resources” would demand huge expenditure of money, large land surfaces and generate at least as much if not more pollution than is now expended for generating power with petroleum, coal, natural gas and hydroelectric means.

There have been major advances in the generation of safe nuclear power since 1990. If the proliferation issue can be resolved, it is possible to recycle up to 90 percent of the radioactive wastes. Nuclear power today offers a promising and viable solution to the fast growing energy needs of the future.

Elie Shneour is research director & president of Biosystems Research Institute. He is also involved in San Diego regional and in national issues involving science in domestic and foreign affairs. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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