If You Want Electric Cars, You Need Electricity
by Bill Walker: US
Education: Show Us the Money!
As of March
2011, China is building 27
new nuclear power plants (and plans 50). Russia is building
10, India and South Korea five each, Japan and Canada two. In the
US, there is exactly one new reactor complex being built.
80% of its power from fission. Most major nations have used nuclear
power to make their environment cleaner and their economies less
vulnerable to $100/barrel oil. Yet the US remains in superstitious
dread of fission… even while dependent on the 20% of our electricity
that comes from our 40-year-old Homer Simpson specials.
Industry: From Pollyanna to Panic
The US built
the first nuclear reactors. We even built the first nuclear
rocket engines, way back in the misty pre-Internet days of the
1960s. (It was misty from all the coal and high-sulfur diesel smoke).
Why did we turn into a nuclear backwater? Because the US government
in all its genius "helped" nuclear power with subsidies.
The US government
shoved nuclear power into use in the 1960s, before it was ready
for prime time. Early reactors and their fuel were subsidized, and
the Price-Anderson act dumped the liability for accidents onto the
taxpayers. (Taxpayers do seem to attract liability for everything
from subprime mortgages to shaky foreign dictators, don’t we? It’s
a wonder we can get insurance at all…)
nuclear technology actually became reliable, US policy turned against
it. Our new electricity needs are now met almost entirely by frantic
construction of fossil-fuel plants, while we publicly bemoan the
potential problem of Global Warming from those very fossil-fuel
power was killed by media-generated fears. Most of those fears were
imaginary, and all were exaggerated. But fear still trumps the actual
numbers. It’s time for a look at the current realities of nuclear
The first hard
fact about switching to nuclear power: it reduces your radiation
exposure. Nuclear power plants, even old ones, release very little
radiation. In fact, they release from 100 to 400 times less than
coal plants, per kilowatt-hour. (There is a significant amount of
radium and polonium in coal). You get more radiation by escaping
to NH from Vermont than you would by living next to a reactor
for your whole life (manly NH granite is full of uranium and thorium,
unlike the soft, limp sediments of Vermont).
So the net
environmental effect of US anti-nuclear policy has been… to raise
our radiation dose for the last 30 years. But don’t worry; compared
to the tons of mercury and vast quantities of organic chemical carcinogens
released by the coal smokestacks, the trivial extra radiation from
coal doesn’t matter. Of course, in addition to cancer there is the
little matter of Global Warming CO2 from fossil fuels. Nuclear plants
are entirely carbon-free (which will be a good thing in a few centuries,
once we get enough CO2 into the atmosphere to stave off the Final
plants are also meltdown free. There are several ways to make nuclear
fuel rods or pellets that stop fissioning when they reach a certain
temperature. The US built the first intrinsically safe reactor in
1986, the Argonne
EBR-II. The Argonne system used fuel rods made of an alloy that
expanded with heat to beyond critical density. Newer designs have
used pebble beds and Doppler scattering, but the result is the same:
fuel elements that shut off over a certain temperature, even if
Homer Simpson turns off every cooling system.
breed of new nuclear plants uses cooling systems which use convection
instead of pumps; again, even if everything is switched off, they
can’t overheat. The Westinghouse
AP1000 uses this principle. (The Westinghouse nuclear division
is now owned by Toshiba, a company that thinks more than one fiscal
include small mass-produced reactors like the Hyperion.
These town-sized (only 25 megawatt) units would be more decentralized
than most current fossil or nuclear generators. They would also
have passive safety features… in fact the reactor itself is a sealed
unit, with no way for Homer to get inside.
The US has
none of the newer, safer plants yet (the one reactor under construction
in Georgia is an AP1000). Yet just like the ex-Soviet satellite
nations, we remain economically dependent on our 1970s reactors.
Again, our anti-nuclear policy has put us at more risk than other
nuclear "waste". Nuclear fuel rods are about 3% uranium-235
when they go into a light-water reactor. They quit producing energy
when they are roughly 1% uranium, 1% plutonium, and 1% radioactive
elements like strontium-90 and cobalt-60.
In other 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 non-fissionable
isotopes can be mixed with Pyrex glass and made back into radioactive
"rocks"… which, after all, is what uranium ore is in the
But in the
US, no nuclear recycling is allowed because of Carter-era regulations.
Used but radioactive nuclear fuel rods must stay in open ponds outside
the reactors just in case terrorists might need some. Thus the US
has a "nuclear waste problem", while other nations do
recycling, it’s hard to do much recycling of any kind without electric
power. Conversely, cheaper and more plentiful electricity will make
recycling profitable…. and thus universal.
Uranium" A Long Way Off
reserves of uranium are enough for a couple hundred years or so…
enough that no one puts much effort into finding more. Breeder reactors
can make more uranium out of thorium; estimates of thorium reserves
get us up to 20,000 years. By the year 22,211, fission reactors
will be in museums next to the flint-knapping tools. The lights
will stay on from fusion… or more likely, something we haven’t even
Even on a shorter
time scale, nuclear fuel cycles are very stable. Once fueled, a
reactor will run for years, independent of possible wars, blockades
or interruptions of trade.
OK As Long As It’s Taxpayer-funded
On February 16,
2010, President Obama announced $8.33 billion dollars in federal
loan guarantees to construct the two AP1000 units at the Vogtle
plant in Georgia. This continues a long tradition of meddling and
favoritism (in other countries, we call giving tax money to private
companies "corruption"). Corruption of course knows no
technological boundaries; all
forms of power production have been distorted by subsidy.
A Level Playing Field
is the cleanest rapidly expandable source of electricity. It produces
no greenhouse gases, no acid rain, no chemical pollutants. It doesn’t
need ecologically disruptive dams. It doesn’t cover up thousands
of square miles of forest with solar panels, it doesn’t kill migrating
birds with eyesore windmill blades.
But is new
nuclear technology better than other alternatives? That is the question
that matters, and it can only be answered by the market. Let all
power technologies compete against the same safety and emission
standards, and all be liable for any damage they cause. Let coal
plants have to meet the same radiation emission standards, and let
non-subsidized solar plants pay for the forest land they cover up
(and for their own capital costs).
Since the Congress
and Administration can’t seem to find anything to cut from the budget,
here’s a suggestion that would save a few billion: cut all corporate
welfare to all forms of energy companies. Government bureaucracy
is no more likely to pick the right technology this time than in
the 1970s, when they decided to leave the US forever dependent on
technology" depends on time and place. Solar cells are fine,
if they’re covering buildings in Albuquerque instead of snowy
forest in Vermont. Windmills, wood-burning plants, methane from
cow pies, whatever can pull its weight on the market is great.
windmills nor wood chips will take us to the stars.
Walker [send him mail]
is a research technologist. He lives with his wife and four dogs
in Grafton NH, where they are active in the Free State Project.
© 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.