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Nuclear Power in America



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Nuclear Power in America

Why is this controversy relevant today?

cooling towers

Global climate change has gained a lot of attention in recent years, and environmental groups and some institutions are encouraging decreased use of electricity produced by coal-burning and supporting research and support of renewable energy production methods like wind and solar power.

Whether nuclear power has its renaissance, is phased out or continues to be a more minor contributor to the United States’ power supply, different parts of our society will be differently, and sometimes strongly, affected by it. The most obvious of these are the three competing contributors to the American energy supply: the coal industry, renewable industry and the nuclear industry itself. First, the coal industry must inevitably go into at least slight decline. Due to the constant increase in American consumption of energy, certainly in the short run the industry will continue to thrive as our major energy source. Professor Jerald Dosch, a professor at Macalester college, informed his students in an Environment Science class, that electricity demand is expected to increase by 50% in the next 20 years, and if this figure stands, then coal stands to gain a great deal of business and money. Renewable energy, it seems, is gaining attention, but making only slight progress. Its capacity has only about doubled since 1960. Around the turn of the millennium, there was actually a decline to 5.33 quadrillion Btus after a peak in the mid-nineties at over 7 quadrillion Btus, but since then it has continually been on the rise. Nuclear power production, on the other hand, has never really declined. 

Part of the reason for this could be attributed to the nuclear industry, which is expensive but also highly subsidized. If nuclear power were to be completely shut down, the money that goes towards its research and development because of concern about greenhouse gas emissions would inevitably be redirected toward renewable energy production, a redirection that would dramatically change the American industry. 

Nuclear power is the responsibility of the federal government. It must provide and enforce strict guidelines and regulations about facilities, operation, transportation and any other activity that occurs from uranium mining to waste storage. Whether nuclear power has a renaissance or a downfall will starkly affect the role of the Department of Energy. There have been no new nuclear plants licensed in nine years, and some of these must be nearing their retirement age. If the United States is going to continue to use nuclear power to produce one-fifth of its energy, new plants will need to be sited, approved and built. These things take a great deal of time, and could potentially not be ready by the time multiple nuclear plants reach an age at which they should be shut down. The government would need to make sure that neither the new plants are rushed to begin production nor the old plants are forced to stay operational longer than is perhaps wise. 

Old Power Plant

A retired nuclear plant

Nuclear Waste is another large issue that must be addressed by the Federal Government. A national waste site would have to be decided upon. As Spencer Abraham, the United States Secretary of Energy, stated in 2002, we cannot continue to rely on what we have now in the way of storage, which is

one-hundred thirty one aging surface sites, scattered across 39 states. Every one of those sites was built on the assumption that it would be temporary. As time goes by, every one is closer to the limit of its safe life span. Every one is at least a potential security-risk—safe for today, but a question mark in decades to come.

This is the case even if nuclear power begins to decline, because we have already produced waste that must be dealt with, and as Abraham points out, present storage is not sufficient. There must be federal effort to get all of the waste that is presently in “temporary” sites to a safe location where it can safely remain for the next few hundred-thousand years. Once the Yucca Mountain decision is officially approved, the government must take great pains to monitor transportation of waste across the country, and to keep the site as safe as is absolutely possible. If nuclear power were to be rejected by the public, it is likely that this plan would still need to go through in order to deal with the massive amounts of spent fuel that has already been produced. The government would also need to regulate the deconstruction of each of the 104 nuclear plants and continue to monitor the radiation in all of those areas. It would also be forced to transfer its funds over time to foster either the continuation of coal-powered energy or the research and development of renewable energy sources in order to make up for its annual 20% loss of energy.

Nuclear Power the Solution to Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Dependence?

The public is skeptical of Global Climate Change not because the science for it is unconvincing, but because if it is true, then the American way of life will indeed become up for negotiation. Yet many Americans join the rest of the world in being concerned. They worry for the future of our planet and hope that renewable technologies will be able to get us through. This is where the idea of nuclear power becomes attractive. A power that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases appeals to both those who don’t want to change their lifestyles and those who want to protect the environment. 

Unfortunately, to say that nuclear power is emissions-free is to not show a complete picture. “The building and later decommissioning of nuclear power plants involve the use of energy derived from fossil fuels, as do the mining and processing of uranium ore and the transportation and storage of the uranium fuel and spent fuel.” (McKinney and Schoch) In other words, nuclear energy production still contributes heavily to global climate change. None of the nuclear industry’s fossil-fuel-demanding processes is any small operation. Everything in this industry requires massive amounts of resources to keep it as separate as possible from literally everything. At a plant, the containment building where the reactor is must be completely encased in an extremely thick concrete dome. At most plants a huge concrete cooling tower is required. Everything about the plant must be nearly flawless in order to maintain the lowest risk and the most protection in both routine operation and in the case of any kind of mishap. Plants at present are also responsible for constructing temporary disposal sites for their radioactive wastes until a national permanent disposal site, almost certainly in Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is approved and accepting shipments. The amount of fossil fuels required for all of this construction is quite significant and never permanent. 


Moss grows in an abandoned plant. Moss accumulates around radiation

Some argue that once these structures are up, no more fossil fuels will be needed, but nuclear plants, in 1998 had a life-span of only 30-40 years or less (McKinney and Schoch), and though technology and materials have improved since then, this number has not impressively increased. When a plant reaches its life-span, it must be totally deconstructed with the utmost regard for containing contamination during the process. In between the constructing and decommissioning phases, the uranium ore used to produce power must be both mined and enriched, sometimes reprocessed, and eventually transported to a deep geological disposal site, which is a controversy in itself. 

The National Repository is planned in Nevada, but the states with the most nuclear plants are Illinois with 11, Pennsylvania with 9 and South Carolina with 7. Besides these there are plants in 28 other states all over the country, including five in Alaska (U.S. Census Bureau). Waste from all of these plants must somehow safely reach Yucca Mountain, and a small percentage of them will be shipped by rail. This means that once Yucca Mountain begins accepting shipments, trucks loaded with casks of spent nuclear fuel will regularly drive on public highways from Pennsylvania, South Carolina and everywhere in between to Nevada. The amount of fossil fuels required for this constant shipping is enormous, especially since the weight of each cask is over 10 tons. The nuclear industry is not in fact emissions-free, but solidly dependent on fossil fuels. 

Nuclear Power Safer than Coal?

Burning coal is emissions-high and dangerous for miners and the public. What are the alternatives? Coal plants provide most of the energy produced in the United States, but they are also historically quite unsafe. Men working in mines to bring up the coal frequently suffer from Black Lung Disease. Mines are extremely dangerous and still today cause numerous deaths and severe injuries every year from accidents and poisonous air. Coal plants produce massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants which can cause asthma, a condition which in 2004 caused 2.5 childhood deaths per million, or 732,568,927.5 child deaths (Office of Enterprise Communications). Finally, burning coal emits vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which does incalculable damage to the environment and human health. The alternatives at this point are renewable energy and nuclear power. Renewable energy is domestic, emissions-low and, depending on the form, fairly passive to the environment. Nuclear power is not considered a renewable because it is fueled by uranium which is, while plentiful, not an unlimited resource. Uranium can be reprocessed, especially with higher grades of uranium, although a policy decision made by President Jimmy Carter limits that option.

On April 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would defer indefinitely the reprocessing of spent nuclear reactor fuel. He stated that after extensive examination of the issues, he had reached the conclusion that this action was necessary to reduce the serious threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, and that by setting this example, the U.S. would encourage other nations to follow its lead. … Today, twenty years later, all U.S. spent fuel remains in storage at each plant where it was used. (Rossin)

Even if reprocessing were in effect for reactor-grade uranium, the waste cannot be used continually. It must ultimately end up in a repository, which has a great deal of potential hazards. Some people believe that its dangers, however, are much less than those that come from coal-burning.

Cohen estimates that the average meltdown would cause 400 fatalities, mostly from cancers caused by slightly increased exposures to radiation, and a few hundred million dollars of off-site damage. From this he concludes that a meltdown would have to occur in the United States every five days to make nuclear power as dangerous to the public as coal burning. From the perspective of monetary damage, a meltdown would have to occur once every other month to match the off-site property damage done by coal-fired plants. (McKinney and Schoch)

Cohen believes that nuclear power is far superior to coal power in terms of numbers. At the very least, if the fossil-fuel use of the nuclear industry is less than that of coal-plants, using nuclear power curbs global climate change which is indeed of great concern to many Americans. He says each meltdown would cause 400 fatalities. He doesn’t mention injuries, non-fatal disease or mutations/disease/deaths in unborn and not-yet-conceived generations, which are very real issues when dealing with radioactive contamination, but let’s focus just on the 400 fatalities. The problem here is that there is no way of knowing how often meltdowns, or any kind accident, will occur. “Every major nuclear disaster that has occurred…has come largely because of what has gently been termed ‘human error’” (Davis), and human error is something that cannot be predicted.

The essence of a normal accident [is] the interaction of multiple failures that are not in a direct operational sequence. You could underline this definition, but there is one other ingredient…incomprehensibility. …Most normal accidents have a significant degree of incomprehensibility. (Perrow)

Control Room

When dealing with technology that is so complex that neglecting a minute detail can be catastrophic, is it possible to prevent them? Adding more computerization, which some might suggest in order to solve the human error problem, could be even more disastrous in the case of an error, because then not only would personnel less familiar with the workings of the system and what could be going wrong, but also because it would provide more opportunity for technical failure and would require computer technicians as middle-men to the engineers and use up potentially precious seconds during a crisis.

Last updated:  5/7/2007


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