Nuclear Power: Salvation or Destruction?

The March 1979 incident at Three Mile Island (TMI) in Pennsylvania was the worst commercial nuclear power plant accident in U.S. history. The accident was quickly contained, and no one was injured or killed. The public panic that ensued was largely due to the airing of a film, The China Syndrome, approximately one week earlier. The TMI incident did lead to improvements, both in the monitoring of nuclear power plants and the training of its on-site operators.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA, the United States has not commissioned a new nuclear power plant since (it takes 10 years to certify and build a nuclear power plant). As of October 31, 2005, there were 104 licensed commercial nuclear power plants. Of these, 69 are pressurized water reactors (PWRs), and 35 are boiling water reactors (BWRs) Together, they generate approximately 97,000 megawatts of electricity, or about 19 percent of U.S. power.

On December 30, 2005 – for the first time in almost three decades – the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) certified the design of a new reactor—the 1000-MW Westinghouse advanced passive (AP) reactor. In the U.S., seven power plant operators are now preparing combined construction and operating license (COL) requests to be submitted to the NRC for new nuclear power plants (see list below).

The Chernobyl failure of 1986 in the Ukraine occurred not as a result of an experiment to test Unit Four’s failsafe mechanisms, but because the reactor was shut down when the test was successfully completed. Chernobyl originally comprised four RMBK reactors, or high-power, channel-type reactors that use graphite rather than water as a moderator, and can be refueled while operating. One has since been restarted. Mykola Karpan, a former Chernobyl safety officer, has said that the RBMK design itself is so flawed, Unit Four could as easily have blown up during routine operations. Safety changes have since been made to all operating RBMK reactors in Russia and Lithuania.

In May of 2004, five countries – Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Lithuania – joined the European Union, on condition that all operating nuclear plants had to achieve Western safety standards within 10 years. Those that can’t will receive EU funding for decommissioning, or shutdown. The Ukraine remains a holdout, and its RBMK reactors a continuing source of EU concern.

Concerns about nuclear energy involve not only design, but spent fuel storage and facility aging. All U.S. reactors, whether PWRs or BWRs, use water to slow down the fission rate. This is why they are often located near rivers or the ocean. These reactors have operated without public harm for three decades, but there is still nowhere safe to store the spent fuel.

Yucca Mountain, on the books of the Department of Energy since 1978, has yet to be licensed for spent fuel storage, and fuel rods continue to pile up at various sites, even though consumers have already paid $17 billion for their disposal through the Nuclear Waste Fund Act of 1982.

Aging reactors, the final concern, shows that in the U.S. fully half of reactors were built, or began operating, before 1976. These older plants – and not nuclear power itself – represent the real danger, because mechanical failure (of the recirculating pumps, for example) can trigger a critical failure of the entire system.

Xcel Energy, which operates two nuclear plants in Minnesota (Monticello and Prairie Island), recently applied for expansion permits at both plants. Xcel, like many operators, conducts complex and well-planned yearly drills for its nuclear facilities through its nuclear operations company, NMC. These drills, which are scenarios designed to mitigate failures and keep the public informed in the event of an emergency, are conducted by individuals like Mike Wadley, formerly NMC’s senior vice president of Government Affairs and now a nuclear sites Vice President. Wadley, who started his career at Prairie Island as part of the operation’s staff, is an expert in his field and can be relied on to keep a mechanical failure from becoming a public disaster. Even so, Prairie Island is 33 years old (and Monticello only seven years newer). The likelihood of such a failure rises as plants age, in spite of every precaution taken.

We, as a nation, have failed to implement sufficient alternative energy technologies to reduce our use of, and dependence on, fossil fuels. This critical failure arrives at the same time as Peak Oil, during which oil fields worldwide are now on the verge of irreversible declines. Even reducing our dependence on foreign oil now requires development of environmentally sensitive areas like the Athabascan Tar Sands. In fact, this Peak Oil situation is the real reason behind our venture into Iraq and our aggressive policy toward Iran. Spreading democracy is only a cover story created by the Bush administration, whose neocolonialist policies translate supranational corporate strategy into government policy.

We have about 10 years to either create enough alternative energy – a field still in its infancy, and always dependent on the regional vagaries of wind and sun – or enough nuclear power (the predictable but sometimes destructive adolescent of energy generation) to replace current fossil fuel generation and safely meet the next era, which I fondly call the End of Oil. In fact, we must. Even if we find more easily-extractable energy resources, the burning of fossil fuels (particularly coal) is destroying the planet.

As an environmentalist, I favor alternative energy. As a realist, I must come down on the side of nuclear energy. I can only hope that I and other nuclear advocates will not be forced to follow in the footsteps of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who – when he saw the awesome power of the first nuclear explosion in 1945 – quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Lo, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

The seven power plant operators that are now preparing combined construction and operating license (COL) requests to be submitted to the NRC for new nuclear power plants:

  • NuStart Energy – a General Electric BWR at Grand Gulf nuclear station near Port Gibson, Mississippi
  • NuStart Energy – an AP-1000 reactor at the Bellefonte nuclear plant near Scottsboro, Alabama
  • Duke Energy – two AP-1000 reactors in the Carolinas.
  • Constellation Energy, in partnership with AREVA – a European PWR at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant site in southern Maryland and the Nine Mile Point nuclear plant in Oswego, New York
  • Entergy, another NuStart member – a new reactor at its River Bend Station power plant in St. Francisville, Louisiana
  • Scana Corp and Santee Cooper – two new reactors north of Columbia, South Carolina
  • Progress Energy – two new reactors in Florida to support its Shearon Harris nuclear plant production

(To find if a nuclear plant is operating in your area, go to: I don’t own stock in any nuclear energy company or operator.
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