With all of the debates and even diatribes today about the harms of our oil dependency, environmental pollution and global warming, it surprises me that there have not been more open and honest public discussions about nuclear power. Why is that? In my view it is a combination of mostly needless public fear of nuclear power, and the self-interested promotions of the oil companies. So let’s look at the facts.
Today by far the largest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere is the burning of coal. Why? Because it is plentiful and relatively cheap. The United States is the world’s largest consumer of coal, and today we generate a full 50 percent of our electricity from it.
But look at what this means. We now are burning about one billion tons of coal in our country every year. That is enough to fill 50 million freight train cars, and is double what we consumed in 1976. But the burning of one ton of coal spews about 3 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and this produces about 40 percent of the world’s so-called greenhouse gases, and about 20 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions.
What is even worse is that coal is one of the most environmentally destructive substances we can use as a fuel. In addition to the substantial pollution problems, the EPA estimates that it kills about 30,000 people in our country alone each year as a result of diseases incurred by miners and others who work with it.
On the other hand, nuclear electric generating plants require only a few flatbed trucks every two years carrying loads of fuel rods, and these are only mildly radioactive such that they can be handled simply by using special gloves. And these rods will stay in the reactors for about six years. (Most facilities replace one-third of their rods every two years.) Yes, the replaced rods are more radioactive than before, but they can be stored in a three-foot deep water storage pool, and actually can safely remain there almost indefinitely. It is also true that a residual amount of the spent material needs special handling, but most of that could be used for other commercial purposes if only that were politically feasible.
There is no exhaust from the generating of nuclear power, no carbon emissions, nor any sulfur sludge to be carted away like that caused by the burning of coal. In fact there is no pollution at all except for some non-tainted hot water that is a by-product of the cooling process.
So what are the public fears? The two most pervasive are that the nuclear plants will blow up, and/or that they will melt down. But the first result is physically not possible, and today the second is practically impossible.
I am far from being even knowledgeable about nuclear physics. But all of the information I have seen tells me that a chain reaction resulting in an explosion can only come from “enriched” uranium, which is about 90 percent U-235. But reactor-grade uranium contains only about 3 percent U-235, so there is simply no way that it ever could explode.
Secondly, in all of our history through the years with our more than 100 nuclear reactors, none of them has ever come close to melting down. Yes it is true that Three Mile Island had problems when a valve stuck in the open position. But the security system worked at TMI and the fuel stayed within the reactor vessel. No one was killed, or even injured, although we naturally roped off the area for a time, and it was expensive to clean up the facility. So the “China Syndrome” scenario is really just a Hollywood fable.
Ah, but what about the problems at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union? Well, that certainly did melt down. But Chernobyl did not have a concrete containment structure like all reactors in our country have, and the Soviets used noticeably inferior technology that we have never used.
Much of the rest of the world seems to understand the safety and benefits of generating electricity from nuclear reactors. France turned away from oil-burning electric plants back in the 1980s when it experienced an “oil shock” due to the increase in the price of foreign oil. So when its Civaux nuclear plant comes on line within another year, France will have 56 nuclear plants that will generate about 76 percent of its electricity. This situation already allows France to export electricity to the southeastern parts of England.
Similarly, China is building two new pressurized reactors in Zhejiang Province, which is near Shanghai, that will each generate 1 million kilowatts of electricity by the year 2014. And Japan, even with its history of being the only country to have experienced the horrors of the atomic bomb, began its nuclear generating program in 1966. So now with its more than 50 reactors, Japan generates more than one-third of its electricity from nuclear reactors. Even Egypt currently has plans to build several nuclear electric generating plants.
And what are our viable options other than nuclear? The generation of power from wind-driven turbines is unreliable. For political and environmental reasons we have reduced our reliance upon hydroelectric power from 30 percent in the 1930s to only 10 percent today, and those numbers will probably continue to decline. Natural gas is a possibility because it is clean-burning and large amounts are increasingly being found in places like Russia and the Middle East. And Singapore burns natural gas for 85 percent of its electricity, so why can’t we? Well, we already import 15 percent of our natural gas from Canada, and it is hugely expensive to transport it over water. So our reliance upon natural gas for our future power generating needs is unrealistic.
So why have we lagged behind other countries in this area? Presently the only nuclear power generating facilities in California are south of us in San Onofre and at the Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo. But one of the two reactors at San Onofre has recently been closed. That reactor could have continued to operate, but politically there was no support for that to occur. And no plans are presently on file for any company to open any additional nuclear generating plants in our state.
We must do better. One of the largest threats to the security of our country is our dependence upon foreign oil. If we could utilize safe and environmentally friendly nuclear power to generate our electricity, that threat would be materially diminished.
So when people look at the facts, they will see that nuclear reactors today are environmentally friendly, less expensive, safer and better designed than ever before. Most of the rest of the world sees those facts, why don’t we?
Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)