Nuclear Power: Back to the Future

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On August 8th, President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It commits the United States government to a broad program of loan guarantees, subsidies, and liability coverage for nuclear power plants, some of which will be constructed directly by the Federal government. So, after running the US nuclear power industry out of business (no new plants have been ordered since the 1970s), the Federal government will now take over and build prototype nuclear plants itself while subsidizing those owned by its cronies.

Of course no libertarian is going to support government subsidies or assumption of liability for any industry. However, nuclear fission and fusion aren’t the enemy. Almost all the energy we use is from nuclear power, whether from the sun’s fusion energy that is locked in coal, or the Earth’s fission energy in geothermal power. The enemy is Fascism: subsidies to those who fund political factions.

We Don’t Know Nukes

Nuclear power has been subjected to an intense campaign of lies; there is probably no other issue (except basic economics, of course) where so much effort has been put into distributing false information. Scott W. Heaberlin’s A Case for Nuclear-Generated Electricity gives a balanced overview of the good (and bad) of nuclear fission energy. This book is the quickest way to cut through all the nonsense about nukes that anti-technology and anti-capitalist forces (including certain oil companies) have poured into the media.

You really need to read Scott’s book if you want a solid background. However, you can start by remembering that as of 2000, France got over three-quarters of its power from nuclear plants, Belgium over 57%, Korea 40.7%, Japan 33.8%… all without any "meltdowns." Is this because foreign nations have no Homer Simpsons? Or because nuclear power just isn’t that dangerous in the hands of civilians?

Why We Don’t Know Nukes

In the 1960s, there were two things of which Sierra Club members were sure. One was that Earth was threatened by an imminent Ice Age. Global Cooling caused by jet contrails and dust particles from smokestacks would have us all living in igloos by the 1990s. The other was that nuclear reactors must be constructed to get rid of air pollution from coal-burning power plants.

Money from various interests (among them fossil fuel companies) flowed into “environmental” organizations in the 1970s. Coincidentally, the leadership of the Sierra Club and other environmentalist organizations had a sudden, simultaneous revelation: nuclear power was inherently evil. The solution was to repent of the hubris of nuclear power and return instead to burning coal (or cow dung, renamed "biomass").

Thanks to the opposition to nuclear power in the name of environmentalism, the US today remains heavily dependent on the burning of coal and natural gas. Methyl mercury pollution from US coal burning is thought by some to be turning up in fish caught from the Atlantic. And of course, US dependence on fossil fuels produces an ever-increasing buildup of greenhouse gases. (Maybe even enough to prevent the Final Ice Age, at least for a while…)

A Quick Note: Reactors Aren’t Bombs

Developing nations (except for the really psychotic ones, like North Korea; those dictators receive US-funded nuclear reactors) find it difficult to buy nuclear technology because of US “antiproliferation” regulations. This “antiproliferation” effort is technically obsolete. Nations who actually want quick nuclear bombs today can use laser isotope separation, not invest huge sums in power reactors or the equipment to produce the low-enriched fuel rods for them. Even advanced breeder reactors, when operated to produce power economically, do not produce bomb-grade material (it is too enriched in Plutonium-240 to explode even when chemically separated from the fuel rod, which is itself too dilute to make a bomb).

In fact, Israel, one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear powers, has no peaceful power reactors at all! The quickest way to get bombs is to make bombs, not to build power plants.

There is very little connection between nuclear power and nuclear bombs. Any technology can be used for weapons; the most dangerous weapons of all (biological, of course) are made with beermaking equipment. Are we going to have a No-Beer-Proliferation Treaty?

Some Technologies Are More Equal Than Others

The Price-Anderson Act that exempts nuclear utilities from liability is an inexcusable special-interest subsidy (which President Bush just extended). The problems inherent in government-granted monopoly apply to all forms of power production in the US. But is nuclear technology more dangerous and polluting, or less dangerous and polluting, than the alternatives? Governments should not attempt to play favorites between technologies. If there are emissions and safety laws, they should apply equally to all.

Why No Nukes?

The anti-nuclear-power media barrage claims that nuclear power is too dangerous to use for three reasons: routine emissions of radioactivity, catastrophic meltdowns, and waste disposal difficulties. Let’s take each concern in turn and compare it to the alternatives:

1. Routine emissions. There is radium and polonium in coal. The routine radioactive emissions from coal plants are between 100 times (for anthracite) and 400 times (for bituminous) more intense than the permitted releases from US nuclear plants. If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulated coal plants, every single one would have to shut down immediately. And of course coal plants release millions of tons of dangerous chemical pollutants, the effects of which are not even well quantified.

Nuclear plants release no greenhouse gases or acid rain. Nuclear plants do not cover up vast areas of wilderness, as must solar-cell farms. They don’t require massive reservoirs to be built to store power for sunless or windless days. Nor do they swat down migrating birds like so many windshield bugs. A nuclear plant’s routine emissions are orders of magnitude smaller than the radiation dose you would get by moving from New York to Denver (the Mile-High City is less shielded by the atmosphere from cosmic rays).

Routine emissions are a non-problem, even for the old-technology plants in use today. And if you don’t trust the Evil Corporation’s figures, you can easily and cheaply get a good radiation meter and check them for yourself. How would you check your neighboring coal plant’s chemical emissions for carcinogenicity? Hire a thousand molecular biologists? (And why bother? You know ONE of those multi-carbon-ring chemicals has to be bad for your DNA…)

If anti-nuclear groups are really concerned about routine emissions, why don’t they spend a hundred bucks and buy a Geiger counter? Perhaps because they know the figures wouldn’t scare anyone. And as far as Denver’s deadly cosmic rays go… cancer rates are low in Denver. Don’t move to New Orleans to get away from cosmic rays.

2. Meltdown. Obsolete Russian nuclear plants can indeed be made into dirty bombs if mixed with sufficient vodka. But no one in the West uses power reactors with "positive void coefficients," i.e. reactors that run faster when they lose coolant. Or reactors without containment buildings, or proper instrumentation, or thousands of other safety techniques that private companies use. Of course, if the US government starts building more reactors, that may change…

Meltdown is not an inherent risk of nuclear power. Nuclear fuel provides millions of times more energy per pound than coal or oil, so thousands of times more inherent safety can be built in economically. One possible solution is simply to use an alloy for fuel rods that has a sufficiently high modulus of expansion that it moves the fissioning atoms apart so much when heated beyond a certain temperature that they lose critical mass. There are other ways to build passive safety into reactors; some modern designs don’t even use pumps for emergency cooling, just depend on water running downhill. We simply can’t get any power source safer than that (a solar panel could fall on your head, right?)

Of course the light-water reactors in the US now were designed in the 1960s and 70s, so they aren’t physically incapable of accident. They are not nearly as safe as the modern designs from which the Federal government has "protected" us. They are, however, still safer than many of our other power sources. So far no one outside a US nuclear plant has been killed or injured in a catastrophic event, even when Homer Simpson was working at Three Mile Island.

Catastrophe Scenarios for Other Power Sources

Coal plants are so bad for health when they’re working properly that it seems a bit superfluous to worry about “catastrophic” problems. But if a coal supply were set afire during a temperature inversion it could cause a severe air pollution episode (resembling London’s Black Fogs of the 1950s); thousands of people could die. Oil-fired plants have the same problem, as does fossil fuel storage in general. Dangerous oil fires have happened, though fortunately not during inversion weather. Yet.

Natural gas is shipped around in tankers that carry hundreds of thousands of tons of liquid natural gas. If one of these ships were rigged by terrorists to make a crude fuel-air explosive bomb it could do far more damage than a couple of crashing 767s.

Some hydropower dams are horribly dangerous. There are reportedly dams in California that could kill a hundred thousand people if breached when full. Terrorists could use a bass boat to tow a shaped charge into position below the waterline on the upstream side of the dam. (Of course if there were any real terrorists they would already have attacked New Orleans levees, or Houston oil refineries, or NYC subways with engineered Ebola/flu…)

Even solar plants have to use an energy-storage system for nighttime power. The usual power-storage system for electric utilities is hydropower dams and pumps, so then we’re back to the dangers of dams again.

The point is not that we should eliminate solar, wind, or natural-gas power (or even bass fishing), just that risks must be balanced. All technologies carry costs and risks… though we must remember that even the worst of them isn’t as bad as the cost of not having electricity… which is why several Chornobyl-style reactors are still in use. Risk management is a job for insurance companies; they eliminate risks in a cost-effective order, rather than by random straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

3. Waste disposal. Nuclear waste disposal is a solved technical problem. Yet it is the subject about which the most confusion and fear has been generated. Government simply forbids the US industry to recycle or safely dispose of nuclear waste. So waste piles up in "temporary" storage, serving as a useful political bogeyman.

Nuclear fuel rods are about 3% uranium-235 when they go into a reactor. They quit sustaining fission when they are roughly 1% uranium, 1% plutonium, and 1% radioactive elements like strontium-90 and cobalt-60. Then in environmentally responsible countries the rods are removed from the reactor, the uranium and plutonium are recycled into new fuel rods, and the other radioactive elements are used by industry for various purposes.

Excess radioactive elements can be mixed with molten borosilicate glass (Pyrex) and made back into radioactive “rocks," which could then be put back into the mine they came out of. Or some more stable storage area can be selected (the House of Representatives chamber come to mind; this would limit the length of legislative spending sessions). But in the US, no nuclear recycling is allowed — by law!

In the United States, plutonium and uranium in used fuel rods were declared to be "nuclear waste" by Jimmy Carter in 1977. Carter claimed that this was an “anti-terrorism” measure, to reduce the amount of plutonium available to terrorists. In fact, it greatly increased the plutonium available to terrorists, because Carter also vetoed the operation of plants to process the nuclear waste into glass blocks. So now we have old fuel rods lying around in aboveground storage areas near nuclear plants all over the country… Not that this matters in the least for proliferation.

No terrorist is going to punch through security at a nuclear plant with a caravan of lead-shielded trucks to try to steal VERY radioactive used fuel rods on the off chance that he could make a bomb out of them decades later. Nor would Al-Qaeda spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a reprocessing center so that they can try to recycle used fuel rods. Any terrorist that wants a nuclear bomb will just walk into Kazakhstan and buy an ex-Soviet nuclear bomb. Or, a lazy terrorist might just use a conventional bomb in one of the many aboveground waste pits to make a "dirty bomb." (I doubt that this would be much of a weapon, but judging from 9-11, the hysteria that would follow would probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars). Carter wrecked the US nuclear-waste disposal industry and created a net loss of security in the process. No subsequent politician has done anything to fix his mistake.

Return Power Production to the Market

The electricity market has been disrupted by political power. The Price-Anderson Act and other pro-nuclear industry government subsidies pushed nuclear power into the US market before it was ready for prime time. Now that nuclear power is ready for the private market, George Bush is pushing it back further under government control with the Energy Policy Act of 2005. This ensures a further anti-nuclear backlash.

This situation makes no environmental or economic sense. Nuclear power should be allowed to compete against other energy sources, as long as its producers bear full liability.

It is morally obscene to force human beings to burn coal and animal droppings in the name of environmentalism. Real environmentalism takes energy. It takes energy to recycle, it takes energy to build up economies to the point that people can afford to care about the environment, and it will take even more energy to build a civilization that can act as a "steward for the Earth."

In the long run there is only one species on this planet that can defend life against asteroid impacts (or Global Warming and/or Cooling, for that matter). And we can’t do it by burning cow dung.

Bill Walker [send him mail] works in HIV and gene therapy research in Rochester, Minnesota.

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