Apr 12, 2010

Nuclear Power Myths

President Obama's announcement in early March that the federal government will support new nuclear reactors through loan guarantees has reinvigorated the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen and other opponents of nuclear energy. Their objections to this proven technology—which already generates about 20% of our electricity—have barely changed since the 1970s. But most of their arguments have either been proven wrong or become outdated. Here's a rundown:

Nuclear isn't safe. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident—in which a faulty cooling valve led to a meltdown without injuring anyone—occurred when computer technology had barely penetrated the U.S. industry. Today, thanks to the Price-Anderson Act, first adopted in 1957 and amended several times since, each of America's 104 reactors is now on the hook for $100 million in damages for an accident at another reactor ($10 billion coverage in all). You can bet they talk to each other. Accidental "scrams" and safety outages have been reduced to nearly zero. Our entire fleet is up and running 90% of the time. That's why, even though nuclear constitutes only 11% of generating capacity, it provides 20% of electricity.

Nuclear is too expensive. Building a 1,500-megawatt reactor will cost around $5 billion, which seems expensive until you compare it to everything else. The equivalent capacity in wind power would easily cost $4 billion because you have to build 4,000 windmills at $1 million apiece plus hundreds of miles of transmission lines and an almost equal capacity of natural gas generators to back them up when the wind doesn't blow. Building zero-emissions coal plants that capture the carbon dioxide and bury it underground will probably cost more, but nobody really knows because it's never been done. Only natural gas is cheaper to build, but that's because 95% of the cost is in the fuel. (With nuclear it's only 26%.) Natural gas prices fluctuate. Would anyone care to predict what the price of natural gas will be in 25 years?

A hijacked jet liner crashing into a reactor would cause a nuclear holocaust. Go to YouTube and search "plane crashing into wall." You'll see a video of an F-4 fighter jet hitting a concrete containment wall at 500 miles per hour. The plane simply disappears. The wall barely budges. Nuclear opponents argue that a jumbo jet would have a greater impact, but the laws of physics say it would be about the same. A jet is a hollow metal tube. Even at the speed of a bullet (700 mph) it could not penetrate a concrete containment wall.

We haven't figured out what to do with the waste. Basically, there is no such thing as nuclear waste. The reason we have the controversy over the Yucca Mountain storage facility is because we gave up fuel reprocessing in the 1970s. Reprocessing reduces the volume of spent fuel—already remarkably small—by 97%. The French reprocess and store all their high-level waste from 30 years of producing 70% of their electricity beneath the floor of one room in their La Hague plant.

We can't reprocess because that will lead to nuclear proliferation. The conceit of the 1970s was that if we isolated plutonium in an American reprocessing plant, some foreign terrorist would steal it to make a bomb. Half a dozen countries have since built nuclear bombs, none of them with stolen American plutonium. North Korea built its own reactor. Iran has been enriching uranium. France, Japan and Russia all reprocess and no one has stolen their plutonium.