Making the Case for Nuclear Power

Published February 1, 2005

A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy by Senator Pete V. Domenici with Blythe J. Lyons and Julian J. Steyn; foreword by former Senator Sam Nunn $24.95, cloth, 288 pages; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. October, 2004; ISBN 0742541886

Pete Domenici is first and foremost a politician. Hence, his book is an almost equal mix of politics and science. It is a bit too self-congratulatory on the political side, including eight glossy pages of pictures of Pete, his children, and his parents. His brief tenure as a minor league baseball player in the Brooklyn Dodger farm system is also covered. Nonetheless, the book has to be the most important one written on nuclear energy in a generation.

Misconceptions Debunked

It takes a considerable amount of courage to paddle so strongly upstream against 30 years of negative public sentiment and proclaim–correctly–that nuclear energy is a national blessing. Domenici makes no bones about his frustration with the state of anti-nuclear sentiment in this country, in his heartfelt preface:

“We are willing to spend billions on exotic alternatives, some of which hold virtually no prospect of helping to end our energy dependency. We are willing to dig more coal, risk more miners’ lives, pollute more air and streams, and spew more deadly heavy metals into our cities. We are even willing to send our military men and women overseas, where many die and more are wounded.

“It takes my breath away that we are unwilling to take advantage of nuclear energy and the billions of dollars worth of brains that American scientists in the nuclear arena offer us. Why?

“I believe two major factors account for our failures. First, many Americans have an irrational fear of anything ‘nuclear.’ They are willing to use radiation to fight cancer, detect other diseases, irradiate food. But mention nuclear energy and a kind of strange syllogism forms in the minds of millions of citizens. Nuclear means bombs and mushroom clouds; radiation means death.

“That almost instinctive chain of thought, flawed as it is, gives use of nuclear energy a pretty steep hill to climb with many of my neighbors.”

While almost no politician was willing to advocate expanding nuclear energy, many politicians made their careers by fighting it. Pete Domenici has decided to stake his legacy on fighting back, and he does a great job in this book.

Safety Record Excellent

Domenici wakes up the reader quickly in his first chapter by reminding us that nuclear power plants roam the world daily without any significant problems. He says, “Nuclear power is safe and sure. Every week, one or two nuclear power plants dock at a major port in America or somewhere else in the world. And these power plants have been doing so for half a century now. … No accidents of any kind have ever marred these dockings, no leaks have cleared blocks of cities; no emergencies have been declared.”

It is indeed amazing how thoroughly this nation has lost sight of the fabulous fleet of nuclear submarines that have operated below the radar these past 50 years. Domenici reminds us in his book that the Nautilus, our first nuclear powered submarine, was launched in 1954.

Since then, the Navy has launched more than 200 nuclear-powered ships, and 82 are currently in operation. Recently, the Navy was operating slightly more than 100 of these reactors; about the same number as those operating in civilian power stations across the country.

Domenici tell us that our nuclear ships are welcomed into 150 ports in 50 countries. They have traveled 128 million miles without a serious incident. Navy reactors have twice the operational hours of our civilian systems. This is a long record of safety, an achievement the public needs to understand.

Spent Fuel Useful

Domenici accurately lays the blame for the decline of the nation’s domestic nuclear program at the feet of former President Jimmy Carter. The man who majored in nuclear engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy halted all U.S. efforts to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and develop mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for our civilian reactors.

According to a report on the Public Broadcasting Service program Frontline, “Early nuclear scientists knew how to get the most energy out of uranium: by recycling its fissionable waste products into new fuel. But because reprocessing involved the separation of plutonium, the specter of nuclear terrorism arose. To avoid this risk, President Carter banned reprocessing of commercial reactor fuel in1977.

“In many ways, this action signaled the beginning of the end of the American nuclear power industry,” the report noted.

Carter believed such a U.S. policy of restraint would serve as an example to the rest of the world. In fact, however, other countries did not follow suit.

Domenici explains, “these countries did not follow our example because our policy was considered to be both economically and technically unsound. Our failure to address an incorrect premise has harmed our efforts to deal with spent nuclear fuel and the disposition of excess weapons material as well as our ability to influence international nuclear power issues.

“By the end of the twentieth century,” Domenici continues, “eighteen countries had developed nuclear fuel cycle capabilities without U.S. involvement. We lost our leadership role in the development of safe, proliferation-resistant technology.”

Only political science majors, historians, and Domenici biographers need bother reading Chapter 2, “The Road to Leadership.” But Domenici gets back to basics in Chapter 3, where he and his coauthors offer a tutorial in energy arithmetic on coal, oil, natural gas, and the ubiquitous renewable wind, solar, and hydroelectric sources.

Energy Measurements Explained

First everyone should know that the basic unit of energy is the joule, named for the English thermodynamics scientist James Prescott Joule. It is very nearly equal to the British thermal unit, or BTU, which is the amount of heat energy necessary to raise the temperature of an ounce of water one degree Fahrenheit.

Because the joule is a very small unit, it is common practice to use the following shorthand prefixes before the word joule to refer to large quantities of energy:

mega joule= a million joules
giga joule= a billion joules
tera joule= a trillion joules
peta joule= a quadrillion joules (million billion)
exa joule= a billion, billion joules

Domenici realizes none of this makes much sense to the layman until he explains that a barrel of oil contains about 6 gigajoules (billion joules) of energy.

He then explains that the next important energy unit is power, which is defined as energy per unit of time. The term for the basic unit of power is the watt (W), named for the Scottish inventor of the steam engine, James Watt. A watt is a joule per second, and everyone who buys light bulbs knows exactly what a watt is. In energy we again add prefixes as follows:

kilowatt (kW) = one thousand watts
megawatt (MW) = one million watts
gigawatt (GW) = one billion watts
terawatt (TW) = one trillion watts

For measuring national energy outputs we use the term quad, which refers to quadrillion BTUs and almost the same number of joules. In the year 2002, the United States consumed approximately 98 quads. The entire world consumed about 404 quads, which supports the oft-quoted statement that the United States uses about 25 percent of the world’s energy but has only about 5 percent of the world’s population. Of course, when people quote this fact, they typically fail to mention that the United States creates about 25 percent of the gross world economic product.

Energy Sources Identified

A marvelous table that Domenici makes available is shown in Table 1, breaking down the sources of U.S. energy in 2001 as well as the projections for energy use in 2025. One failing of the book is that it does not digest more of its voluminous data into easily readable tables like this one.

Table 1
Breakdown of U.S. Energy Supply in Quads through 2025
Energy Source 2001 2025 Annual Growth
Petroleum products 38.1 55.0 1.6
Natural gas 23.4 32.2 1.4
Coal 22.2 31.7 1.6
Nuclear power 8.2 8.5 0.2
Renewables 5.8 9.0 1.9
Other (methanol, liquid hydrogen) 0.1 0.0 -4.6
Total 98 136 1.5
Source: DOE-EIA, Annual Energy Outlook 2004 with Projections to 2025, DOE/EIA, January 2004.

Domenici makes a very good case that the environmental impact of nuclear power is minimal when compared with that of so-called renewable power. His numbers are not quite accurate, but his point is correct. A 1000 megawatt nuclear power plant (the standard size in the United States) occupies 213 acres, or about one-third of a square mile, while he says it would take 3,000 windmills on 40 square miles to create the same amount of power.

Dr. Howard Hayden, author of the book Solar Fraud (2002) and arguably the world’s leading expert on wind power, is quite certain the real numbers would be 7,500 windmills on 300 square miles, but of course we will never know for sure, he says, because “it isn’t going to happen.”

Reactors’ Production Impressive

Domenici tells us that worldwide there are 437 nuclear plants currently operating in 30 countries, with a total generating capacity of 362.9 gigawatts. Those nuclear plants supply approximately 16 percent of the world’s electricity. An additional 30 plants are under construction and 33 are ordered or planned.

A table from the book, reproduced here as Table 2, lists the countries that had significant nuclear power programs as of December 2003. Europe obtains 35 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, thanks to the lead taken by France in the 1970s.

Table 2
Countries with Significant Nuclear Power Programs
Country Nuclear Power Capacity (GWe) Number Plants 2002 Capacity Factor (%) 2002 Nuclear Share (%)
United States 97.3 103 91 20
France 63.2 59 75 78
Japan 44.0 53 81 34
Germany 21.3 19 87 30
Russia 20.7 26 71 16
Rep. of Korea 14.9 18 91 39
United Kingdom 12.3 31 74 22
Ukraine 11.2 13 75 46
Canada 10.0 14 84 13
Sweden 9.4 11 79 46
Source: Based on World Nuclear Association fact sheets.

In addition, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland have a combined total of 26 operating plants, with a total capacity of 19.6 GW. Taiwan has six nuclear plants producing 4.9 GW in total. India has 14 small plants that produce a total of 2.7 GW, and the Czech Republic has six plants that together produce 3.5 GW. A handful of other countries have one or two nuclear plants.

One of the most interesting aspects of the U.S. nuclear power industry is that since 1990 there has been an increase in electricity output among them equivalent to the amount that would be generated by 25 new 1000MW plants. This has largely been the result of increasing capacity factors and power uprating.

Domenici points out that although we have not built a new nuclear power plant in nearly 30 years, those licensed for only 40 years of operation are being rapidly upgraded and are receiving license extensions for an additional 20 years.

Radiation Myths Debunked

Domenici and his co-authors do an excellent job of explaining how antiquated is the concept of a “linear no threshold” (LNT). This idea holds that even a single, microscopic leak of nuclear radiation is harmful. That standard has severely blocked energy development. He tells us:

“The LNT model forces us to regulate radiation to levels approaching one percent of natural background radiation levels despite the fact that natural background can vary by far more than a factor of three within the United States, for reasons related to altitude, building materials, geologic environment, and exposure due to plane flights, to name just a few examples.

“We now … expect all work to be done such that the absolute minimum possible dose is delivered with virtually no reference to cost involved. We spend over $5 billion annually to clean contaminated DOE sites to levels below 5 percent of background.”

U.S. Fuel Wealth Documented

The chapter on uranium resources is an excellent assessment of the rich uranium supplies in the United States and those existing around the world, which can readily put an end to the petroleum politics that have held many developing nations hostage. Most enlightening of all is his correct assessment that we have a national treasure of uranium just sitting in our spent nuclear fuel storage pools. Each used rod is composed of 95.6 percent uranium.

The United States already has demonstrated at the Argonne National Laboratory that it can separate out this uranium at a high enough quality that it can be re-enriched and manufactured again into new fuel for our current generation of reactors.

Equally exciting is the fact that advanced fuel cycle technology holds promise of further major improvements in fuel efficiency and waste reduction.

Nuclear Future Clarified

Among Domenici’s greatest contributions in this book is the light he has cast on the terrible decline in available manpower to work in the nation’s nuclear power industry because of a reduction in university programs producing nuclear engineers. There were 50 four-year college programs in the early 1970s, but only 25 remain today.

Domenici says we must increase public and private funding for university nuclear engineering programs and facilities, U.S. national laboratories, and nuclear energy R&D.

Domenici, Lyons, and Steyn shine brightest in their grasp of nuclear science when they deal comprehensively with “The Waste Disposal Conundrum” (Chapter 9). As I travel the country lecturing on nuclear energy, it is clear public acceptance of a growing role for nuclear energy in the future is increasing, but significant fear of nuclear waste disposal remains.

Domenici holds up France as a model of good science, management, and public relations. It has all but eliminated fears of nuclear waste–in a country that obtains 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants.

Developing Countries Need Power

The final chapter makes a very thorough case for nuclear power by focusing on its safety, economics, and abundance in light of China’s and India’s growing electricity needs. It points out the United Nations has calculated a satisfactory quality of life is not reached until a nation’s population consumes about 4000 kilowatts of electricity per person. Yet one quarter of the world’s population has no access to electricity at all.

Domenici says, “this lack of electricity exacerbates and perpetuates poverty in these countries. Lacking electricity, jobs cannot be created by industrialization of the economy.”

Overall Domenici is extremely optimistic that the world’s future is a nuclear future. But that can happen only if many strategic steps are taken in science, politics, and public relations. Let’s hope that many in our federal government read this book and are persuaded by it.

Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

Readings and other materials from the April 1997 Frontline program “Nuclear Reaction: Why Do Americans Fear Nuclear Power”? are available online at