A History of America’s Nuclear Power Experience

Published August 1, 2009

[This month’s column on nuclear energy by Heartland Institute Science Director Dr. Jay Lehr features a review of the book Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey, by William Tucker.]

Veteran journalist William Tucker has written about energy in virtually all of America’s major magazines. Tucker’s new book on nuclear energy buys into global warming and treats Amory Lovins, the solar energy guru, with undeserved calm respect.

But perhaps such treatment is just what we need to get society to pay attention to the energy that will one day fuel the planet if the foolishness of non-nuclear renewable energy does not send us into planet-wide bankruptcy first.

While the book is promoted as focusing on nuclear power, only section four, the last 147 pages of the 388-page text (followed by 40 pages of references), recounts the history and hoped-for renaissance of nuclear power. The first three sections of the book cover global warming, fossil fuels, and solar and other renewable energies. The book, however, is worth twice its price just to read section four.

Amazing Power Potential

The book jacket perfectly describes Tucker’s understanding of nuclear energy, explaining how odd it is that nuclear energy has to be reintroduced to our nation even though it has long supplied almost 20 percent of our electric power. Nuclear power has been too long associated with bombs, accidents, and anti-nuclear hype. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and China Syndrome come quickly to mind.

Tucker makes it clear that nuclear power is a form of natural energy, the same process that heats the center of our Earth to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The concentration of power in the nucleus of the atom is incredible, as the disintegration of a single uranium atom produces 2 million times more energy than is produced by breaking a carbon-hydrogen bond in coal, oil, or natural gas when they are burned.

Tucker notes a 1,000 megawatt coal power plant requires 110 rail cars of coal each day, while an equally powerful nuclear plant requires a single tractor trailer to deliver new fuel rods once every 18 months. While Tucker does not oppose either solar or wind power, he points out they require 100 times more land than either coal or nuclear power plants.

Actually, he is only half right: The number is more than 200 times more land.

Nuclear History, Science

Tucker recounts the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb and spurred the growth of nuclear power. He details the Three Mile Island debacle, which virtually no one ever understood. More importantly, he describes the benefits of that accident as a result of subsequent investigations and improvement in the nuclear power industry.

Tucker’s chapter on radiation explains in layman’s terms the details about alpha, beta, and gamma waves. He explains the beneficial effects of exposure to low levels of radiation, called hormesis, which makes folly of our government’s assertion that when a lot of something is bad then even a little is also bad.

Nuclear Waste Solutions

Tucker’s final chapter, “France and the Future,” is as enjoyable as a glass of fine French red wine. Tucker takes us on a tour of France’s nuclear power industry, which provides 80 percent of the nation’s electricity with so little waste that it has all been stored in the basement of a single building.

Tucker’s chapter on “Waste and Proliferation” explains better than any other I have read how we should have been doing what nearly every other country in the world has been doing with its nuclear waste: Reprocessing it into more fuel.

This explanation is not an easy read for those who will enjoy Tucker’s book as a journalistic history of our energy problems. With Tucker’s permission I will attempt to simplify his excellent description of reprocessing technology for you in my next column on “All Things Nuclear.”

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.