Nuclear Energy in the World Today (Part Two)

Published November 10, 2003

Environmental Stewardship

In addition to the good financial news, there is a great deal of exciting environmental news related to nuclear power.

At Detroit Edison’s Fermi 2 Power Plant, environmentalism is for the birds. And the native purple coneflower. And the eastern painted turtles.

Hugging the shoreline of Lake Erie, the nuclear power plant seems an unlikely spot for an environmental effort that has garnered praise from government and public policy groups alike. But looks can be deceiving.

The Wildlife Habitat Council bestowed its National Habitat Conservation Award on Fermi 2 in 2002 in recognition of its wildlife plan. The plant’s site encompasses approximately 1,120 acres of land, with about 680 acres available for wildlife. Its habitat range from forested lowlands and coastal wetlands to open fields and quarry lakes.

The wildlife plan focuses on many programs, including planting a wildflower meadow, taking the annual Christmas bird count, and creating shelter and food sources for pheasant.

Since the plant’s wildlife team began participating in the annual National Audubon Society’s Christmas bird Count in 1990, scores of feathered friends have visited the Fermi site, including the great blue heron, mallards,woodpeckers, and northern cardinals.

The plant continues to exemplify corporate environmental responsibility through its efforts to maintain, protect, and enhance Michigan’s environmental resources. Similar stories can be recounted from nuclear power plants across the country.

The Fermi plant is not alone in its commitment to environmentalism, as is made clear in the Nuclear Energy Institute’s 2003 report, Powering the Future with Environmentally Sound Nuclear Energy: The Ecological Stewardship of the Nuclear Energy Industry. “All of the 103 U.S. nuclear power plants … carry out a variety of ecological programs,” the report notes, “depending on their locations and circumstances.” The report summarizes scores of ecological programs undertaken by power plants in more than a dozen states, from Arizona to Louisiana to Connecticut.

Waste Disposal

Nuclear plants release no noxious gases or other pollutants. The per capita radiation dose from an entire nuclear cycle of a power plant is less than that from cosmic radiation on a single cross-country airplane flight.

A 1000 mega-watt nuclear plant produces one metric ton of high level waste each year, which when mixed with benign U238 fuel and encased in steel might weigh 30 tonnes. In addition, 800 tons of waste with minute, low-level contaminants are produced which can be buried in a shallow trench. This amounts to about 20 cubic meters when compacted, which is the size of two average automobiles.

The high-level waste is highly radioactive but the Low-level waste can be less radioactive than coal ash. Thanks to its small volume, the high-level waste can be meticulously sequestered behind multiple barriers. It decays steadily, losing 99% of its toxicity after 600 years. France has used a most sensible disposal method, encapsulating the waste in glass, putting the capsules in stainless steel and lead shielded containers, and then storing them in deep underground caves.

But in the United States, nuclear waste disposal is a political problem because of widespread fears disproportionate to the risk reality. Waste disposal is not an engineering problem – it is a political problem engendered largely by the no-nukes activists aided and abetted by a media addicted to fomenting crises.

A case in point is the famous Yucca Mountain battle in Nevada that has been waged for the past few years as to the wisdom of burying all of the nation’s high level nuclear waste beneath a single mountain thought to be safe for 10,000 years. Few scientists question the safety of the site, which has been studied for nearly two decades, while few environmental zealots will never accept any site. Concurrently the NIMBY syndrome of “not in my back yard” will keep the pot boiling for years to come.

Safety Record

It is indeed remarkable that the combination of human fallibility and mechanical failure over the last 40 years has resulted in a nuclear safety record unsurpassed by any other industrial activity. Commercial nuclear electricity in the United States has killed zero members of the public over that period. Conventional electric plants powered by coal, oil, and natural gas produce more than 200 accidental deaths per year, not to mention respiratory problems created by fossil fuels.

As we have said, the maximum credible accident already occurred at Three Mile Island with nor deaths or injuries, and the worst case Chernobyl disaster, which could not occur in the United States, had a small fraction of the predicted tragic outcome.

Beyond these convoluted pieces of good news is a yet to be recognized fact that nuclear power plants are not subject to catastrophic results from terrorist attacks as the public believes. They do not respond as nuclear bombs, regardless of the means of attack perpetrated upon them. Surely their utmost security is in the best interest of all citizens, and indeed they have the very best.

It is totally fraudulent to conjure up in the minds of the public Hollywood movies and “China Syndrome”-like disasters. This is exactly what was done on June 30, 2003, when an activist group named Riverkeeper ran a half page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal calling for the closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant 22 miles from New York City. The ad stated: “In the event of a terrorist attack or catastrophic accident the damage to the nation’s economy would be incalculable.”

The Future of Nuclear Plants

A new generation of nuclear power plants may use an innovative technique now under construction in South Africa called the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. This reactor encases the nuclear source material in ceramic spheres about the size of tennis balls and transfers the heat into helium gas which creates enough pressure to turn a turbine. The heat generated rises to about 900 degrees centigrade while it would take nearly 3000 degrees to actually melt the ceramic and release any radioactivity. Concurrently, the medium of helium dramatically reduces any potential impact on the environment, were a release to occur. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is thus far supportive of this innovation and appears willing to approve sites for small, 500 mega-watt plants.

An even more exciting potential advance in nuclear power production has been suggested by Edward Teller, the primary inventor of the Hydrogen Bomb, and Lowell Wood, a prominent nuclear scientist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory who formerly directed much of the work at the Los Alamos Nevada Nuclear Test Site before testing was halted more than 25 years ago.

In a talk delivered in July of this year at the Aspen Global Change Institute, Wood described a new and exciting “Thermostating Module” with some amazing properties. Howard Haydn, Emeritus Professor of Physics at The University of Connecticut described this new nuclear energy process to a number of colleagues, including this writer. His description is summarized below.

“The fuel could be Thorium-232 or natural uranium, housed in a 10-meter stainless steel vessel 100 meters below ground surface, where it will operate for 30 years. An “igniter” in the center of the fuel container starts the reaction. Only the fuel in the immediate vicinity of the “nuclear fire” contributes to the burn. The “wave” of burned fuel travels extremely slowly, about 16 or 17 centimeters per year in both directions from the center. After 30 years all of the fuel is consumed.

The thermostatic property arises from the absorption of neutrons. Roughly speaking, the probability of absorption of neutrons (hence subsequent fission) is inversely proportional to their “temperature,” a measure of their average kinetic energy. If the temperature of the fuel rises, so does the temperature of the neutrons, and the reaction rate drops dramatically. If more power is demanded, the heat-transfer agent which would be helium is simply pumped faster from the surface down to the perimeter of the stainless steel vessel and back to the surface where it would power a conventional turbine. More cool helium throughput means cooler fuel, which means higher reaction rate (thermal power). If the helium is shut off, the fuel heats up until the neutrons are so hot that they are not absorbed appreciably. The system seeks an equilibrium temperature, and that temperature is low enough to avoid damage to fuel, container, helium tubes, and the like, and high enough to result in serious power output. Such is the nature of automatic negative feedback that it does not demand human intervention.

In a power station, there would be enough of such units to produce two gigawatts (GW) of thermal power, and the hot helium would be adequate to run turbines at over 60% efficiency, thus yielding about 1 GW of electrical power.

Because the nuclear fire has such a high neuron flux, all of the actinides — heavy isotopes that last for millions of years, and about which anti-nuclear activists worry themselves to death — are all transmuted into fissile isotopes that comprise high-level radioactive waste. They are decayed to nothingness in a matter of centuries.

And where do we throw this stuff away? Right where we put it in the first place. After 30 years of use, the fuel is gone, replaced by radioactive fission products. The heat they generate will melt the surrounding sand and form a glass around the stainless steel vessel. This is not science fiction, or even the rocket science I referred to in the opening line of part one of this article last month. This technology has the capacity to end public fears over declining fossil fuels and the irrational fear of nuclear energy.

The Bottom Line

It is now completely absurd that anti-capitalist, anti-industry, anti-development, and in fact anti-people socialists have poisoned the minds of so much of the world against the cheapest, most abundant, and safest form of energy on the planet. It is truly amazing what devious minds can achieve in a world so filled with terror-prone people.

Those of us who know better must begin a strong and enduring battle against these forces because our success will improve the plight of the least fortunate, poorest fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated on this planet. As energy goes, so goes the ultimate health of nations.

Nuclear energy can bring wonders to all humankind, but only if those who know this have the courage to do battle with men and women who stand in opposition for whatever reason they perceive.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The author acknowledges the following sources for significant input to this article.

  • The New American Magazine, April 23, 2001 “Rethinking Nuclear Power,” by Douglas S. McGregor

  • Time magazine, May 28, 2001 “Nuclear Summer,” by Daniel Eisenberg

  • Science & Environmental Policy Project Newsletter May 16, 2001, “Nuclear Power’s New Day,” by Richard Rhodes

  • Hard Green by Peter Huber, Basic Books 2000

  • The Energy Advocate Newsletter by Howard Hayden, June 2003 and January 2003

  • “Nuclear Energy Industry Sees Its Fortunes Turning”, Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2003, by Richard Simon

  • Nuclear Energy Insight Newsletter of the Nuclear Energy Institute, January 2003

  • Letter to the New York Times by Lloyd Mielke, May 17, 2001

  • “Nuclear Energy Makes Environmental Sense,” by R.S. Bennett, from The Torch, newsletter of The Society of Environmental Truth, October 2001.