May 16, 2005, 9:40 P.M.
The Nuclear Option: A short time ago, I had a conversation with a friend about cell phones and the growth of technology in the past 20 years. Not so long ago, you had to know where a person was to be able to call him on a telephone, and the only computers as powerful as my old HP laptop were the size of a large room. Because of a seemingly endless market and a wellspring of new ideas, technological growth shows no sign of letting up.
Energy technology, on the other hand, seems to be stuck on the local track while electronic, computer and communications technology whizzes by on the express. This may be changing, however, as more and more scientists begin to look to nuclear energy as a viable option. What is really remarkable is that some environmentalists are breaking ranks with the traditional no-nukes contingent and suggesting that, if certain traditional concerns with nuclear energy can be overcome, it may present a viable option to the continued “carbonization” of the atmosphere.
There is little doubt, and a mounting body of scientific proof, that there is a direct connection between increasing carbon emissions and global climate change. The shift in attitudes is directly related to this realization. According to Stewart Brand, a founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, this shift in philosophy on the part of environmentalists has more to do with global warming and its connection to fossil fuel use than with improvements in nuclear technology. There have been significant enough developments in nuclear energy technology to allow for its consideration as an alternative to the continued consumption of fossil fuels and attendant “carbonization” of the atmosphere.
Mr. Brand’s recent article “Environmental Heresies” in the May issue of Technology Review, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, takes the bold step of including nuclear power on a list of alternative technologies including solar and wind technology. We have come a long way since 1979, when the Three Mile Island meltdown drove the last stake into the heart of the nuclear power industry.
Not all environmentalist groups support a reconsideration of nuclear as an option for reducing greenhouse gasses. Nuclear power generation raises environmental issues of its own, including the reprocessing and disposal of spent fuel and the possibility of radioactive emissions. As I understand it, this is where technological advances in the processing, handling, use and disposal of nuclear materials can aid in the process of moving nuclear from taboo to the front burner. In the 1970s, nuclear was dead. I was working as a concrete finisher on Reactor 2 at the Oyster River power plant in New Jersey when the entire crew was laid off and called back the next day to demolish the unfinished containment vessel and attendant structures. The opposition to these plans was just too high after TMI.
In addition to the environmental concerns, the cost of building, operating and maintaining nuclear power plans is still prohibitive. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman have jointly sponsored legislation aimed at offering financial incentives to companies currently developing nuclear technologies. Also included in the legislation are limits on the emission of heat-trapping or greenhouse gasses. When coupled with proposed carbon emission credits, these incentives might be enough to entice power companies to develop safer, more reliable and more efficient nuclear technologies.
The fear of proliferation is also a concern, and far more of a concern than it was when the last order was placed for a nuclear power plant over 32 years ago. Reprocessing and disposal issues are no longer only environmental concerns. In Europe, Russia and Japan, spent fuel rods are reprocessed in a system involving the separation and recycling of plutonium that prevents serious risks of weapons proliferation.
Improved safety of the plants themselves seems to be technological certainty. Improvements in construction, design and operation of modern reactors seems to present a diminished risk of serious accidents or “China Syndrome” meltdown.
Scientists and environmentalists are still out on the edge of the ice on this issue. Unless the issues of cost, safety, disposal and proliferation can be conclusively resolved, the new nuclear option will never get off the siding. Unfortunately, we may again be looking at the possibility of massive subsidies for an industry declared dead before Ronald Reagan became President. It will have to compete with other technologies like solar, wind geothermal, biomass, ethanol and hydrogen for technology dollars. There is also a rational fear that a return to nuclear will divert attention and dollars from conservation, recycling and alternative energy development.
The reality is that no option can be ruled out, no option is a panacea, and a solution to over-carbonization of the atmosphere must be found. The nuclear option, in this case, must remain on the table.