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New nuclear power plants are needed now

The peak of world oil production, whether it is happening this year or in the next 5-10, will require us to begin immediately thinking about replacement energy. The ultimate replacement that is completely renewable is of course solar energy.

Given the scale of the challenge to produce an entirely new energy network, while at the same time dealing with oil prices that are expected to keep increasing, and possible fuel shortages, there will be a pressing need for interim solutions.

The only candidate remotely capable of getting us through this transition is fission based nuclear power. In addition to making electricity, nuclear power can be used to produce hydrogen through electrolysis, and through the steam process. This will be a vital component. Fission based nuclear power has had two main drawbacks: public mistrust, and waste disposal.

Waste disposal is well on its way to being solved by the construction of the Yucca Mountain repository. Although environmental groups have succeeded in delaying the completion of this repository for nearly 2 decades, it is scheduled to open sometime around or shortly after 2010. Most of the challenges mounted by environmentalists have concerned the lack of planning for timescales in excess of 10,000 years of waste disposal. In any case, anyone with common sense would prefer to see nuclear waste stored in the Nevada desert then sitting at well over a hundred nuclear sites around the country, which are, in fact, near large population centers.

If energy prices begin to spiral out of control, and it becomes clear that human beings are beginning to suffer for lack of energy, we can hope that green opposition based on problems 10,000 years in the future will evaporate. Because when you really look at it, nuclear energy is actually a lot greener than oil. There are no emissions, no C02, and the industry has had 40 years to refine disposal strategies.

Also, it’s time for the U.S. to reconsider its ban on reprocessing of nuclear waste. President Jimmy Carter decided in 1977 to scrap the program. Most people have not considered that so-called nuclear waste actually retains 95% of it’s reactive capacity, and can be reprocessed and used many times over before it is fully depleted. This will extend the life of recoverable uranium deposits for hundreds of years.

The problem of public mistrust of nuclear facilities, may also be resolved, when it is rationally weighed against the continued risk of fossil fuel consumption. For 40 years, there have been no fatalities in the US from nuclear electricity generation. On the other hand, fossil-fuel related deaths are in the hundreds of thousands during the same time period:

  • The source was an EPA Report released in
    November 1999, EPA-410-R-99-01 on Benefits and costs of the Clean Air Act.
    It is loaded with references, but when all is said and done, the principal
    reference is to a study by a large Harvard Group published by C.A. Pope
    and 6 coauthors, Am J Respir Crit Care Med 151:669-674;1995. It was a
    prospective study linking air pollution data on sulfate particles and fine
    particulates for 151 Metropolitan areas with individual risk factors for
    552,000 adults who resided in those areas, 11,000 of whom died during the
    follow-up period. They adjusted for smoking, education, and and several
    other factors. The ratio of mortality risk (with 95% confidence intervals)
    for the most polluted to the least polluted areas were:
    Based on sulfates, all causes 1.15 (1.09-1.22)
    lung CA 1.36 (1.11-1.66)
    cardiopulminary 1.26 (1.16-1.37)
    Based on fine particulates, all causes 1.17 (1.09-1.26)
    lung CA 1.03 (0.80-1.33)
    cardiopulmonary 1.31 (1.17-1.46
    Their paper also reviews other studies (Lave & Seskin, Lipfert
    et al, Ozkaynak et al, Dockery et al),and it concludes that the
    results are similar. 8% of deaths in areas of *average* pollution are due to air pollution,
    and half of all people live in Metropolitan areas, that means that 4% of all U.S. deaths,
    80,000 per year, are due to air pollution.

The public mistrust of nuclear power thus involves a common misapprehension of statistics and facts. We tend as a society to have greater fear of potentially catastrophic events than those mundane events that cause slow, but inexorable destruction. This is a fatal logical flaw that should be overturned. It will be overturned, if fossil fuel shortages become severe enough.

We really need to think about doubling our nuclear electric capacity to 40%, and beginning to produce hydrogen for transportation. It’s a huge undertaking that will ultimately have to happen one way or the other. The sooner we get started, the less economic disruption we will have to endure as oil and natural gas prices continue to rise.


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