Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Nuclear energy: Is it good or bad?

A primer to atomic power’s hottest topics

By Victoria Schlesinger

Like a neutron colliding with an atom, two factors are igniting Americans, and particularly environmentalists, into reconciling a messy question: Do we or don’t we want to develop nuclear power? Eight years of the Bush Administration’s heavily pro-nuclear policies with billions in government subsidies have roused the ailing nuclear industry. Simultaneously, our search for clean, greenhouse gas-free energy sources has turned urgent in the face of climate change. The mix of influences is propelling nuclear energy into the lime light for serious reconsideration.

But many of the old concerns remain. Since the accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island power plant in 1979, no applications for new nuclear power plant building permits were submitted for almost 30 years. While no one was killed or even hurt following the reactor’s partial meltdown, the public glimpsed the potential for disaster.

Nonetheless, the industry has persevered, claiming improved oversight and potential to improve air quality, although it has found no long-term solution for disposing its radioactive waste. Today, 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states supply 20 percent of our electricity, making it our second largest energy source after coal.

Things began to heat up for the industry within two weeks of President Bush taking office in January 2001. He formed the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPD), headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, which produced a National Energy Policy report by May of that year, recommending “the President support the expansion of nuclear energy in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy.”

Following a long legal battle to force the release of NEPD documents to the public, environmental lawyers at Natural Resource Defense Council uncovered that industry lobbyists were integral in forming the president’s energy policy and his decision to launch a so-called ‘nuclear revival’. Over eight years the nuclear industry has received billions in government funds, while construction and operating license applications for 30 new reactors are in the works. Such support would likely increase if Arizona Senator John McCain takes office next year. He recently said, “… the French are able to generate 80 percent of their electricity with nuclear power. There’s no reason why America shouldn’t.”

Meanwhile, research has mounted documenting current and potential impacts of climate change. The IPCC found the world must drastically and quickly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases expelled into the atmosphere in order to avoid the worst impacts of a warmer planet, which include rising oceans, more severe weather, destruction of ecosystems, and the spread of animal- and insect-borne diseases.

But there are no easy, off-the-shelf technologies currently available to enable such reductions. Research is underway, alternatives are being built, and waste-cutting efficiencies implemented although none can yet accomplish the necessary cuts while feeding the world’s voracious and growing use of electricity. Accept for maybe nuclear power.

In the coming week, we’ll delve into some of the arguments for and against increasing nuclear energy, but here we’ve briefly summed up some of the hot topics:

Emissions: Compared to other major existing energy sources, such as coal and oil, nuclear power emits almost no greenhouse gasses, or nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, the primary components of air pollution.

Energy independence: Increasing American nuclear energy enables the country to reduce the amount of oil it imports from other parts of the world and provides reliable base-load power. However, there are limited stores of uranium isotope U-235, which is required for nuclear fission and is largely found in Canada, Australia, and Niger.

Cost: The expense of building two advanced technology nuclear reactors was originally estimated at around $7 billion. The price tag recently rose to $14 billion and construction hasn’t even begun. Champions of wind, solar, and other forms of alternative energy argue high cost and government support for nuclear are gobbling up money that could help develop less established industries.

Environmental health and safety: The risk of a catastrophic reactor accident, as well as significant waste disposal problems, hangs around nuclear power’s neck like a noose. Uranium mining can also endanger the health of miners and people living near mines, as well as the environment, as radioactive ore waste has been shown to contaminate surface and groundwater.

Security: Underlying a nuclear chain reaction in both an energy reactor and weapon is an isotope called uranium-235. Reactor grade uranium requires a 3-5 percent concentration of U-235, while weapon grade needs 90 percent concentration. Therefore anyone possessing U-235 and the necessary equipment can make either nuclear energy or bombs.

Impact on natural resources: The Union of Concerned Scientists calculated that to keep cool a typical 1,000 megawatt reactor requires approximately 476,500 gallons of water a minute be pumped through its system, a number that could nearly triple in some of the new, larger facilities. In some systems, the warmed water returned to its source – lake, river, ocean—contains low level radioactivity. Also aquatic life circulated through the cooling system can be killed.