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The Nuclear Energy Option

The fate of nuclear energy is intimately tied to the fate of the Yucca Mountain repository. The legitimate question is whether the political and technical agony over the repository is balanced by the prospective benefits of retaining America's nuclear energy capacity. Nuclear energy does have a number of advantages over other large-scale energy resources that are not generally acknowledged by the public and which seem to be ignored by the media.

ADVANTAGES:

1) Abundant fuel reserves of uranium exist. With the potential reprocessing of nuclear waste, the energy reserves from nuclear sources are nearly inexhaustable, measured in thousands of years.

2) Costs are competitive with other energy sources and may drop considerably as regulations delaying the licensing of nuclear plants are streamlined and a new generation of safe and efficient designs are brought on-line.

3) Global warming (or cooling) is not affected by nuclear energy. No carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons or chloro-flourocarbons are emitted. Properly employed, nuclear energy is environmentally safe.

4) Nuclear waste is compact, isolated and monitored, making it less of an environmental disposal problem than the diffuse gases and ash of the hydrocarbon economy. The entire nuclear waste from one year of operation of a nuclear plant fills a volume the size of two cubic meters.

5) Unlike solar energy, nuclear energy is available continuously (it is timescale convenient). It can also be situated close to end-users on small amounts of land (it is geographically convenient).

Despite these advantages, nuclear energy is not the ultimate solution to all of the world's problems. Just as Ken Bossong of Public Citizen was forced to admit in more candid days that solar energy, the great hope of environmentalists, has problems (see Chapter 69), we should admit nuclear energy's problems as well.

DISADVANTAGES:

1) Radioactive substances can be extremely dangerous and need to be monitored with care. They can cause cancer and genetic defects.

2) Reactor safety needs to be continuously improved, both through better designs and better management of these sites. Fortunately, safer designs already exist and the main delay in implementing their construction is opposition from the environmentalists to any form of nuclear industry.

3) The federal government should not subsidize nuclear energy, just as it should not subsidize solar energy. Nuclear energy's future should be played out in the marketplace, not in the halls of congress in a battle between industry and environmental lobbyists.

4) Costs must be brought into check. The Energy bill of 1992 goes a long way towards solving many of the institutional problems inflating the cost of nuclear energy. Equivalent progress needs to be made in trimming costs at the design and construction phase as well.

5) Finally, the end disposal problem still needs to be resolved. Fortunately, as of this writing Yucca Mountain still appears to be a viable long term storage solution.

These problems are mostly managerial, not technical. In a sense, nuclear energy is no longer a cutting edge industry, it has been used successfully for more than thirty years. Implementing nuclear technology no longer depends on quantum scientific breakthroughs and paradigm shifts. The industry's future does depend on there being a stable and rational political environment in which long term stable investment can be made and nuclear energy developed as part of a mixed energy economy.

One of the ironies of the environmentalist's claims that nuclear energy is too expensive is that costs of nuclear energy are driven by activities of the protest movement itself. In fact, the opposition to Yucca Mountain has specifically attempted to drive up costs by delay tactics and lawsuits. At the national level, Shutdown Strategies proposed by various Naderite affiliates (Public Citizen, Natural Resources Defense Council) seek to cancel reactor siting and the construction of the repository. In Nevada, Bob Loux, Senator Bryan and others have made it known that they hope to derail the entire repository siting process by litigating transportation routes nationwide, claiming the market values of property along the route will be driven down by perceived risks.

Consequently, the greatest deterrent to the safe use of nuclear energy may be the environmental watchdogs themselves. By forcing the utilities, and manufacturers to divert resources from hard science and plant safety into public relations, the protestors may have delayed the development of truly safe nuclear energy systems by many decades. In place of rational science has come the need to fulfill spurious licensing requirements and fight legal delays. Unlocking the legal and political barriers which now govern the development of nuclear energy would significantly hasten the implementation of safer and/or more economical nuclear technologies now on the threshold of being built.

THRESHOLD TECHNOLOGIES

A number of technologies can improve the efficiency, safety and economics of nuclear energy, vitalizing our industrial base while saving our environment.

1) High Temperature Gas Reactors (more efficient and tolerant of loss-of-coolant accidents).

2) Modular mass produced standardized reactors (design and manufacturing error reduction).

3) Integral Fast Breeder Reactors (consume significant portion of own waste)

4) Linear proton accelerator transmutation (recycling of long-halflife to short-halflife wastes plus energy production).

5) Direct reuse of spent fuel after minimum reprocessing (it may be possible to simple grind up used reactor assemblies and recover more energy from second generation assemblies)>

Nuclear energy is cost effective, it does not pollute the atmosphere, it adds less radioactivity to the environment than coal burning processes, and its waste product is concentrated because of the high energy-to-mass ratio of the entire cycle. Thus technological advances leading to cheap nuclear power would allow a national renaissance, both environmental as well as economic.

THE YUCCA MOUNTAIN IMPACT

The availability of a long-term waste repository obviously affects future utilization of nuclear technology by putting a lock on the development and construction of new reactors. While this is the primary effect of delays in bringing Yucca Mountain online, the evolving design of the repository itself has a profound effect on the future of nuclear energy. The retrievability of spent fuel from the repository obviously is a boundary condition affecting which nuclear reactor technologies evolve. The rising possibility that new processes may be able to recycle spent fuel also add to the motivation to design the repository as a geological monitored retrievable storage facility rather than simply a waste tomb. Serious thought towards incorporating retrievability criteria in the repository and transportation design will likely be repaid with future dividends if and when spent fuel becomes a valuable and recoverable commodity.

The most telling question in this case may be in the design of multi-purpose unit canisters capable of being unloaded of their contents at future times with minimal radiation risk. One problem this raises is what constitutes an optimum package size; large canisters of the proposed 125 ton variety will be hard to manipulate. Can such canisters still be handled perhaps two centuries in the future? Physically, such canisters should also be able to withstand occasional rockfalls within the repository. Rockfalls in turn could be somewhat alleviated through rock-bolting of tunnel walls and appropriate concrete reinforcement. Each of these and other choices, however, affect the final repository configuration substantially.

Long term monitored retrievable storage at Yucca Mountain may make sense specifically because of the uncertainties in future technologies and institutions. Any interim aboveground solution to nuclear waste storage must deal with the possibility that economics, political instability, natural disasters, apathy or a host of unforeseen consequences will result in nuclear waste polluting future generations. While on-site or aboveground storage may be more flexible and responsible to future generations, it can be argued that geologic storage is a rational solution even under a number of aborted retrieval and closure scenarios.

THE NUCLEAR PROMISE

It would be naive to propose that nuclear energy will lead to some utopian civilization, because every technology requires tradeoffs between benefits, costs and risks. In any event, it is unlikely that nuclear energy is the entire solution to our energy problems, just as solar, hydrocarbon, hydro and other energy technologies have not proven to be perfect solutions. Nevertheless, even in a mixed energy economy, increased utilization of nuclear power could lead a number of positive benefits:

1) The reduction of smokestack pollution responsible for acid rain, global warming and health threats.

2) The reduction of automobile emissions by bringing on line electric cars, trams, railways and super speed trains.

3) A decreased dependence on foreign oil, lessening military commitments and enhancing security.

4) Effective subsidization of the Third World by lessening the need of the industrialized nations for limited petroleum imports.

5) A general decrease in energy costs, boosting economic growth.

Nuclear energy is not perfect, but it provides options not offered by other energy resources. Nuclear energy, in synergy with other traditional and alternative energy sources, can bring America into a new era. But this can only happen if the industry is unfettered of unnecessary legal and economic constraints and if a solution to the nuclear waste disposal question is reached.