Out With Windmills – In With Nuclear

Britain buckles down to real energy. The UK will change out an established wind farm for a new nuclear power plant. This rational move will boost an anemic average of 1.3 MW of zero emissions wind generated power to a robust average of 1300 GW of zero emissions nuclear power. The manufacturer of wind turbines will be cutting jobs, blaming the government for failing to support the sector.

Britain has learned the hard way that their headlong green rush into medieval technology has been wasteful and foolish. They spent time and money trying to force a technology to do what it simply can't do. Despite what Boone Pickens says, wind's optimum use is only as backup and it can't supply more than twenty percent of required loads. Pickens is a subsidy hunter, promising a 25% return on a 4,000 MW windmill farm in Texas, based entirely on federal tax credits. Have you ever seen how much land wind power requires? Pickens' project will need 1,200 square miles. But, none in his backyard, please. He thinks the wind towers are too ugly to be on his large ranch.

Real, productive people need real, industrial-sized power. And, don't even mention conservation. Conservation is no energy policy. Conservation is no more an energy plan than fasting is a food supply. Sure, greater efficiencies save energy, but we immediately have more uses for it. Only when the economy tanks do we use less energy. Nonetheless, I don't consider that to be our current depression's silver lining.

So, lead us Britannia. Let us, too, seize the day, the sense, and the cents. Let us, too, use peaceful-atom energy technology, which can do all that we need it to do. Why aren't we doing just that? Why do we fear the best, most natural power provided on earth by earth?

Is nuclear really saddled in the U.S.A. with insurmountable risks?

I grant that things didn't get off to a smooth start with nuclear power. Think about it. Would there be any electricity today at all if the first electrical product had been an electric chair? Electricity would have been dead on arrival after such a market launch. So, what can you do when your initial product is an atomic bomb? That pretty much set the stage for nuclear energy's dismal reception.

The curtain fell on that stage before stardom was attained. At the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1979, a hanging tag obscured a warning light. This human error consequently led to the damage of 70 percent of the core and 100 percent of the forward momentum of the nuclear power industry. There was, after close inspection during nine years, no unusual incidence of ill health in the public found, but the utilities experienced cardiac arrest. Public abuse, skyrocketing financial risks, draconian commission demands and required government-led evacuation plans sounded the death knell for the truly grand promises of nuclear energy. The response was a rational and complete upgrade to nuclear training, led by the Institute for Nuclear Power Operation and inspired by Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy.

Still, nuclear's potential went unrealized. By 1998 a company called Entergy stepped up and began buying unpopular nuclear reactors and began making immense improvements. All 104 nuclear reactors in the country were upgraded and beginning to perform to potential by the millennium. Since 1990, nearly one-third of our country's electrical growth has been met by this upgraded performance. Nuclear now is the source for 19.8 percent of total electricity provided, while it makes up only 9 percent of our generating capacity. Our nuclear reactors achieve an all-time low in production cost of 1.68 cents per kWh. The reactors operate 24/7 for close to two years without interruption. The new fuel rods that are required about every eighteen months can be handled with gloves. The U-235 content of reactor-grade fuel is only 3 percent and cannot explode under any circumstances. Have these sound safety facts reassured our unscientific culture? Not much.

Public fears about radiation have persisted while there have been few fears about that other transmission of energy – electricity. Like I said, expect marketing challenges when your introductory product is a bomb.

But how well founded is hysteria over radioactivity? Did we really not notice that our blue home planet is a natural atomic energy reactor itself? We might not know that every second of our lives we are struck by 15,000 particles of radiation. We even might not be aware that own bodies are naturally radioactive. But, did we really not notice that the sun's radiation is the source of our life? Have we really not noticed that it is always the dose that makes the poison, rather than the mere presence of a single photon or atom? We certainly are arbitrary about what we choose to be frightened of.

I was representing the American Nuclear Society in Manchester, England, in 1991 when I first realized that the very rules written to regulate against risks were, themselves, creating much of the hysteria over radiation with which the general public was infected. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was saddled with a supposition that said that if a large amount of something could cause you harm, then a single molecule of it could and would cause harm. That concept is called LNT – the linear no-threshold hypothesis. LNT disregards thresholds and proclaims that there is no safe dose. It is not scientific. It is false. But this false LNT is the reason workers around nuclear materials are suited up in spacesuits. That's much more than a waste of money; it's a truly scary signal. And, it's unwarranted.

Low doses of radiation have exhibited positively beneficial effects upon health. That foreign concept is called hormesis. Another foreign concept could go a long way to putting the energy back into the nuclear energy industry. It is "use 95 percent of the fuel rod rather than just 5 percent." The French do it, along with Canadians, Russians, English, Japanese and others. We even did it until 1970.

Let's do it again. Let's use 95 percent of the fuel rods by reprocessing and use the remaining 5 percent in radioactive isotope applications for health medicine and industrial applications. Let's have excess energy to sell, as the French do. Let's gear up for nuclear plants so we, too, can have them produce 80 percent of our electricity, as the French do.

What do we do? We Americans use only 5 percent of our fuel rods, then fight like crazy to prevent the 95 percent "wasted" rod from being buried in Yucca Mountain.

Nuclear energy power isn't just tilting at windmills. There are good reasons for it to be replacing them.

May 2, 2009