Greenhouse Gases vs. Plutonium

When it comes to the energy crisis, could nuclear power be the lesser of two evils? By Kiera Butler

More and more environmentalists are coming around to the idea of nuclear power: It’s technologically viable, it’s safer than ever, and best of all, its contribution to our greenhouse gas output is virtually nil, say its proponents.

But Rodney Ewing, a professor of geological sciences and nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan, isn’t convinced that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the drawbacks: not enough plants, not enough storage space, and perhaps most importantly, not enough assurance that nuclear power technology won’t be misused to create nuclear weapons.

There are currently some 400 nuclear power plants in the U.S. Ewing believes that in order to significantly reduce our greenhouse gas output, we’ll need to increase that number by a factor of three to ten.

“Even if we only increased the amount of nuclear power plants by a factor of three, we’d need to build about 1,200 plants by the year 2050, and that’s quite a production schedule,” said Ewing from the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Philadelphia, where he presented his research yesterday. 

But Grant Logan, director of the Heavy Ion Fusion Science Virtual National Laboratory, believes that if the U.S. adopts standardized designs for fuel plants, we’ll be able to build plants more quickly—and more cheaply.

“In the 1970s, each new plant was like an experiment,” said Logan. Since there were no standard designs, each plant required teams of engineers, architects, and geologists. But today, plant designers have decades experience to draw from, and Logan believes that standardized plants wouldn’t be hard to create.

“If you know what you’re building, you can build it faster, and if you can build it faster, it’s a lot cheaper,” he said. Logan also pointed out that while the price of nuclear power plants is currently much higher than  traditional power plants, the cost of nuclear fuel itself is significantly lower.

Another major problem with nuclear power is waste storage. “We don’t have a repository yet, and with increased use of nuclear power, the need will only grow,” said Ewing. Legally, the proposed Yucca Mountain storage facility would only store about 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, and if we were to build enough new nuclear power plants to reduce our production of greenhouse gases, we would quickly fill it.

Per Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, believes that the future of nuclear power depends on whether or not we are able to design plants that will create less waste.

“The major question is whether or not over the coming twenty to thirty years we’ll be able to develop advanced technologies that will be capable of reducing the waste output and of recycling and reusing spent fuel,” he says.

But Ewing says the greatest environmental problem with nuclear power is the possibility that its byproducts could be used to make nuclear weapons.

The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency has become increasingly able to determine how a facility’s waste is being used, and researchers are working to ensure that plants’ processes are transparent to inspectors. Problems arise, however, when countries refuse to allow inspections, said Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University. Lackner believes that nuclear power is an important part of the solution to the energy crisis, but like Ewing, he takes the threat of nuclear proliferation seriously.

“How do you force a country to use a transparent process?” said Lackner. “If a country wants to make nuclear weapons, they won’t pick the most obvious process to monitor. That’s the issue.”

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If you use thorium as your basic nuclear fuel instead of uranium, you won't have to worry about producing plutonium or the other long-lived transuranic isotopes that fill up a place like Yucca Mountain.

The US has 103 commercial nuclear power stations, not 400. Those plants produce 20% of our electricity supply, so building an additional 300 plants of similar size would provide the capacity to supply 80% of the US electrical power demand. This would allow us to completely shut down coal burning.

Some proposed designs are larger (up to 1600 MWe) than those that are currently operating, so the actual number needed could be even lower.

These numbers are easy to find on the web. A good place to start would be on the Energy Information Agency web site.

If Professor Ewing really believes that we need 1200 nuclear power plants in the US, I wonder about the quality of his market research.

As an aside, Professor Ewing is an eminent and respected geologist and minerals specialist, but he is definitely not a nuclear engineer. Here is his C. V.

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