Monday, April 24, 2006

Nuclear Power Reconsidered

Twenty years ago this week, a late-night experiment at an obscure nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union turned into the worst nuclear accident in history. During the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, operators at the graphite-core plant in Chernobyl, some eighty miles north of the Ukranian capital of Kiev, violated numerous regulations and disabled safety mechanisms during an ill-considered reactor test. The reactor blew apart and the graphite (carbon) core caught fire like a giant nuclear barbecue pit, sending radioactive smoke into the atmosphere. The accident was compounded by the criminally slow response of the Soviet government, which first attempted to cover up the incident. When Scandinavian nations detected abnormal levels of airborne radioactivity and started asking questions, the USSR reluctantly admitted there was a problem, but not before thousands of people living near the plant had been exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity.

An Associated Press story by Mara D. Bellaby published this week recounts estimates of the total number of fatalities and illnesses caused by the accident. Not as many people died from Chernobyl as was originally feared. Eventually the government got around to evacuating some 116,000 people who lived within twenty miles of the plant. Official reports released by United Nations agencies recently say that only 50 people have died so far as a direct result of radiation poisoning traceable to the accident. Surprisingly, this includes those who fought the fire in the first hours of the accident and who were exposed to the most intense levels of radiation. The most significant problem in the general public has turned out to be a sharp increase in thyroid cancer among young people. Since radioactive iodine is taken up preferentially by the thyroid in children and adolescents, this increase was expected. Careful screening for early signs of thyroid cancer and prompt treatment have cured nearly all of those who contracted the disease, according to the reports. So if the world's worst nuclear accident caused only 50 deaths, why is it that no new nuclear power plants have been ordered in the United States since 1978?

The last nuclear plant to be completed in this country was finished in 1996. The nearly twenty-year span between these two dates alone give you some idea as to why utilities are reluctant to order nuclear plants. For a variety of reasons, many of them good, the nuclear power industry in the U. S. is hedged with an incredible number of regulations, permit processes, and controls from overlapping Federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Our own worst nuclear-plant disaster, Three Mile Island, happened in Pennsylvania in 1979, and compares to Chernobyl as a fender-bender compares to a bus full of children tumbling down a mountain. Nevertheless, it was serious enough to create political turmoil that effectively shut down the nuclear power construction industry in this country. There are still U. S. companies that make nuclear plants—they just don't sell them here.

As a consequence, the increased demand for electricity in the U. S. has been met since the 1980s largely by more coal-fired plants, with a small but significant amount contributed from renewable sources such as wind power. There are many good reasons to oppose nuclear power: the problem of what to do with the highly hazardous wastes created by plant operation, the danger of nuclear proliferation to unstable countries, and the "yuck factor" that some people will always feel about a technology that is associated with nuclear weapons. But assuming that the nation's use of electric energy is not going to decrease in absolute terms any time soon, the power has to come from somewhere, namely coal in the last few years. And opponents of greenhouse-gas emissions, many of whom also oppose nuclear power, know (or should know) that you can't burn coal without making carbon dioxide, which is the greenhouse gas of most concern. Nuclear power, whatever its other drawbacks, produces virtually no greenhouse gases, which is one reason that even "greens" have been giving it a second glance lately.

Some countries such as France never abandoned nuclear power. France's example shows that given a moderate, stable regulatory environment and good engineering, nuclear power can be a safe and reliable source of electricity, leaving aside the question of wastes. Still, it is not at all clear that the nuclear industry will ever be able to build substantial numbers of new plants in the U. S. The new free-enterprise model of partially deregulated utilities makes it even more risky to plan a long-term capital investment such as a nuclear plant, which sucks in millions of dollars for years before even starting to produce revenue. So if we can't build new nuclear plants, and we don't want to contributed to global warming by building new fossil-fueled coal, oil, or natural gas plants, where will the energy come from?

Radical conservation combined with renewable and distributed energy generation is one possible answer. Here and there, enterprising architects have built houses and even commercial buildings whose net use of externally supplied energy in the form of electricity or natural gas is only a small fraction of what typical construction uses. The drawback, of course, is that it takes expensive custom engineering and materials to achieve these radical savings, and in the current economic environment there is no incentive to do these things. Perhaps some radical economic experimentation is in order here. If large tax breaks or even subsidies were provided for building structures whose energy usage was, say, 50% or less of the average level, this could really be regarded in the light of a loan, since the country as a whole will benefit from the fact that less energy usage is a net gain in a costly-energy economy. A whole raft of vested interests would first have to be placated, but that is what politics is for.

As the aftermath of Chernobyl has proved, our worst fears in some areas sometimes turn out to be not as bad as we thought. But before we in the U. S. go nuclear in a big way, we have time to consider other options.

Sources: An article by Mara Bellaby similar to the one carried in the Austin American-Statesman is at

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