Ch. 16 – The Nuclear Energy Option

  Chapter 16 — THE NUCLEAR ENERGY OPTION

RECAPITULATION

Why Build More Nuclear Power Plants?

Many areas of the United States are already short of electrical generating capacity. Brownouts, situations in which voltage has to be reduced causing lights to dim and motors to run slow, have been necessary in several situations. In other cases, utilities have had to appeal for reduced usage, such as abstaining from use of air conditioners and clothes dryers or asking that nonessential commercial operations be shut down. In December 1989 there were complete blackouts in sections of Florida and in Houston, Texas. The situation is rapidly getting worse as our electricity consumption increases much more rapidly than the generating capacity needed to provide for it. We will soon have no choice but to launch into a large program of new power plant construction.

With minor exceptions, these new plants will have to be powered by coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear fuels. There are lots of good reasons for avoiding the use of oil and gas to generate electricity:

For the most part, therefore, our new electrical generating capacity must be powered by coal or nuclear fuels, although oil and gas will still be used to some degree. Burning coal, oil, and gas leads to a wide variety of environmental problems. They are major contributors to the greenhouse effect, which threatens to cause highly disruptive climate changes:

Burning coal is the major contributor to acid rain which, in some areas, is heavily damaging forests and fish in lakes. This acid rain is straining relations between Canada and the United States, and between several pairs of European nations.

But perhaps the most serious environmental problem with burning fossil fuels is air pollution, which is estimated to be killing about 100,000 Americans every year. Attempts to solve this problem are very expensive, and there is little reason to be confident that the limited objectives these attempts target will solve it. Air pollution causes a variety of illnesses, and it has several other unpleasant aspects, such as foul odors and the degrading of all sorts of objects from stone carvings to clothing.

Coal burning causes many other environmental problems, such as destruction of land surfaces by strip-mining, acid mine drainage, which pollutes our rivers and streams, land subsidence, which damages and destroys buildings, and waste banks from washing coal, which are ugly and lead to air pollution. Coal mining is a harsh and unpleasant occupation. Miners are frequently killed in accidents, and constant exposure to coal dust causes severe degradation in their health, often leading to premature death from an assortment of lung diseases.

Oil has its environmental problems too. It contributes substantially to air pollution and to acid rain. Oil spills in our oceans have fouled beaches and caused severe damage to aquatic life. Oil causes fires, odors, and water pollution. The use of natural gas can lead to fires and explosions and can kill people through asphyxiation.

All of the adverse health and environmental effects resulting from burning coal, oil, or natural gas to produce electricity can be avoided by the use of nuclear power. As the public becomes more concerned about these problems, its attitude toward nuclear power is changing. Recent polls show that the American public now recognizes the need for new energy supplies, and that it wants and expects a much larger contribution from nuclear power. In fact, a substantial majority of the public believes that nuclear power will, and should, supplant coal as our primary source of electricity generation in the very near future. At the same time, the nuclear industry has been developing new types of power plants that are cheaper and very much safer than facilities now in operation. The stage seems to be set for a new surge in building nuclear power plants.

However, not far below the surface and threatening to erupt at any time is a large reservoir of concerns about the health and environmental impacts of nuclear power. Most of this book has been devoted to addressing these concerns. They derive from a number of misunderstandings, mostly large differences between the public’s impressions and the viewpoints of the scientific community on important issues.

Public Misunderstanding

The most important misunderstanding concerns the hazards of radiation. The public views radiation as something quite new, highly mysterious, and extremely dangerous. Actually, there is nothing new about radiation; humans always have been, and always will be, exposed to radiation from natural sources, at hundreds of times higher levels than they will ever experience from the nuclear industry. Far from being mysterious, radiation is much simpler and better understood than air pollution, food additives, insecticides, or nearly any other environmental agent.

The danger from radiation is a quantitative issue, and thus it must be considered quantitatively. A very extensive basis is available for estimating the risks of radiation exposure. The principal source of information is experience with people exposed to high radiation doses from the atomic bomb attacks on Japan in World War II, from a wide variety of medical treatments with X-rays and radioactive sources, and from occupational exposures to radiation. We also have very extensive information from experiments on animals and on microorganisms in laboratory dishes. Studies of the health effects of radiation comprise a well-developed scientific field with strong interactions between theory and experiment, and with strong links to other fields of science. As a result, there is essentially unanimous agreement in the scientific community on the quantitative estimates of the dangers of radiation, or at least of its maximum danger. (Many believe that the dangers of low-level radiation like that received from use of nuclear power could even be zero). These scientific estimates are presented in the reports of several national and international committees and commissions, consisting of our most distinguished scientists.

Unfortunately, the public has developed a very clear impression that the danger of radiation is incomparably greater than what is indicated by these scientific estimates. The reasons for this large difference include heavy media coverage of even the most trivial incidents involving radiation exposure, use of inflammatory adjectives like “deadly” or “lethal” in describing radiation, and frequent TV appearances by scientists from far outside the mainstream.

The second major misunderstanding concerns the frequency and consequences of a large reactor accident. The government agencies involved with nuclear power have sponsored very extensive research on these topics. They have produced reports which outline a spectrum of potential serious accidents and estimate their probabilities of occurrence. Unfortunately, the public has been informed about only the most serious of these potential accidents, without being informed about their extremely low probability. For example, the accident that has been described most often is expected only once in 10 million years. When the probabilities are correctly taken into account, it turns out that, averaged over time, we can expect less than 5 deaths per year from these accidents, as compared with tens of thousands of deaths per year from coal-burning air pollution. Consequently, every time a coal-burning plant is built instead of a nuclear plant, thousands of extra citizens are condemned to an early death. This statement applies even if we accept the risk estimates by the leading group opposed to nuclear power.

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the USSR stirred up old fears, and it was only natural to ask whether such an accident could occur here. However, that reactor was of a very different type than those used in the United States because it was designed to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs. This required several compromises on safety that have always been rejected as unacceptable in the West. The principal lesson learned from analyses of the Chernobyl accident is that our approach to reactor safety is far superior to that of the Soviets.

The third major misunderstanding is about the dangers of radioactive waste, principally the “high-level waste” produced directly in the fuel by the energy-generating reactions. This waste is often viewed as almost infinitely toxic. Actually, it contains far less toxicity than many other products of our technology like chlorine, ammonia, phosgene, barium, or arsenic compounds, or air pollution from burning coal.

What are we going to do with this waste? We’re going to convert it into a rocklike material and bury it in the natural habitat of rocks, deep underground. How do we know it will be safe? We know all about how rocks behave, and there is every reason to believe that this material will behave similarly. Engineered features will be added to provide extra safety. For example, the waste packages will be sealed in corrosion-resistant casings that provide a high degree of safety even if all other protective features should fail.

The fact that radioactivity levels decrease with time eliminates nearly all of the danger, since movement of material to the surface is a very slow process. It is retarded by a succession of barriers: absence of groundwater, insolubility of the surrounding rock, sealing action of backfill material, corrosion resistance of the casing, insolubility of the waste itself, slow movement of groundwater (one inch per day in the site under investigation), filtering action of the rock, which constantly removes dissolved materials from the groundwater, and long distances for the groundwater to flow before it reaches the surface. As a result, it will take hundreds of thousands or millions of years for buried waste materials to get back into the environment. By that time, the radioactivity in the waste will be only a tiny fraction even of the radioactivity that was originally mined out of the ground to produce the fuel.

Quite aside from engineered safeguards and time delays, analyses based on a randomly selected burial site indicate that only 1 atom in 100 million of the buried waste will reach the surface in any one year, and only 1 atom in 10,000 of these will enter human bodies. Quantitative calculations then predict only 0.02 deaths over all future time due to the high-level waste produced by one nuclear plant in one year. This is a thousand times less than the effects of air pollution, one of the wastes from coal-burning power plants.

The U.S. Department of Energy has tentatively selected a site for the first repository in the Nevada desert, and has embarked on a program to evaluate its safety. All available information indicates that it will be very much safer than the randomly located repository considered above. Because of the public concern, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent annually on this program. The costs are being covered (with lots to spare) by 0.1 cent per Kilowatt-hour tax on nuclear electricity. This still adds only 1% to the cost of nuclear power.

Aside from high-level waste, there are other radioactive waste problems. One that has attracted substantial attention is low-level waste from nuclear power plants. But the impact of this low-level waste on public health is much smaller, perhaps 2% of the already very small impacts of high-level waste. The most important waste by far is radon, released into the environment from mining uranium for nuclear fuel. Mining the uranium to fuel one nuclear power plant for one year will eventually result in releasing enough radon to cause 11 deaths. But conversely, removing the uranium from the ground will eventually save hundreds of lives that would otherwise be lost due to the radon it would generate if this uranium were left in the ground. Since radon is a gas, it naturally percolates up out of the ground where it can easily be inhaled by people.

When the same methods used to evaluate the dangers of buried nuclear wastes are applied to some of the wastes from coal-burning that end up in the ground, it turns out that two classes of this coal burning waste are many hundreds of times more harmful to public health than any of the nuclear wastes. One of these classes is the chemical carcinogens — cadmium, arsenic, and so forth; the other is radioactive materials — uranium, thorium, and radium — that eventually turn into cancer-causing radon.

The fourth area of public misunderstanding is about risks in our Society. The public does not seem to realize that life is full of risks. Let us give a sample of them, along with the number of days by which they reduce the life expectancy of those exposed (an asterisk indicates the loss of life expectancy in days by the entire U.S. population): being poor, 3,500; smoking, 2,300; working as a coal miner, 1,100; being 15 pounds overweight, 450; motor vehicle accidents, 180*; using small rather than midsize automobiles, 60; radon in homes 35*; accidents with guns, 11*; using birth control pills, 5; hurricanes and tornadoes, 1*; living near a nuclear power plant, 0.4; large nuclear power program in the United States, 0.04*. Even according to the opponents of nuclear power, this last number is only 1.5.

It is clear from this list that nuclear power is a relatively trivial risk, and that its risks have received far too much attention. Another way to understand this fact is to consider how much money our society is willing to spend to save a life. Typical amounts are: programs in Third World nations, $200; cancer screening, $75,000; highway safety, $120,000; air pollution control, $1 million; natural radioactivity in drinking water, $5 million; nuclear power plant safety, $2.5 billion. In a democracy such as ours, government spending is determined by the degree of public concern. Hence, these numbers correspond roughly to the ratio of the danger perceived by the public to the true danger. It is clearly evident that the public’s perceptions of the dangers of nuclear power are exaggerated at least a thousandfold.

Another public misunderstanding lies in the supposed connection between nuclear power and nuclear bombs. Actually this connection is very tenuous. Bombs made from plutonium produced in U.S.-type nuclear power plants would be of very inferior quality. Much easier and cheaper ways are available for a nation to procure much higher-quality nuclear weapons. The threat of terrorists stealing plutonium to make a bomb is greatly exaggerated; there are much easier and safer ways for terrorists to kill far more people if that is their goal. The toxicity of plutonium has also been highly exaggerated. Many things, like nerve gas or toxic biological agents, are far more deadly and much more easily dispersed into the environment, either by terrorists or through accidents.

Cost Problems

Because of these misunderstandings and exaggerated concern about nuclear safety, regulatory requirements on nuclear power plants were constantly tightened in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This process required frequent design changes in the course of construction, which led to a great deal of wasted time and effort. As a consequence, the cost of a nuclear plant, corrected for inflation, quadrupled — dollar costs increased 10-fold. The effect was to make nuclear power economically unattractive. No nuclear power plant construction projects have been started since the mid-1970s, and many dozens of projects have been cancelled.

The basic problem was that nuclear power plants were not conceptually designed for the super-super safety that the public now demands. Achieving improved safety by add-on systems is both inefficient and limited in what can be achieved. The nuclear industry has therefore started over with new conceptual designs and is developing a new generation of reactors that will be a thousand times safer than those now in service. They will also be smaller and simpler, with far fewer things that can go wrong. One of their new features is passive stability; that is, even if electric power fails and the reactor operators simply walk away, no serious consequences occur. Electricity produced by these new nuclear reactors will be about 20% cheaper than that produced by coal-burning power plants, their principal competitor.

Some people advocate holding back on further use of nuclear power because they believe that solar electricity is “just around the corner.” Actually, nuclear and solar electricity are not in competition, because the latter is not available at night. Even if all goes very well in the development of solar electricity, it can be useful only for providing the additional power needed during the daytime. Nuclear power is not normally used for that purpose. Any real competition between nuclear and solar electricity must therefore await the time when technology for storage batteries develops far beyond its present program goals.

As we face up to our growing need for more power plants, the only real choice in most cases is between nuclear and coal burning. Nuclear power will be substantially less expensive and thousands of times less harmful to our health and to our environment. The time truly seems to be ripe for a resurgence of nuclear power in the United States.

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