Nuclear Energy in the World Today

Published February 1, 2004

In addition to the good financial news for nuclear energy, presented in Part 1 of this series, there is a great deal of exciting environmental news.

Detroit Edison

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 ranges from forested lowlands and coastal wetlands to open fields and quarry lakes.

The wildlife plan includes 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, visitors to the Fermi site have included great blue herons, mallards, woodpeckers, and northern cardinals.

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 received by passengers on a single cross-country airplane flight.

A 1000 megawatt nuclear plant typically produces about 20 metric tons of high-level waste each year in the form of used nuclear fuel. Because of the density of uranium, this amount of used fuel is remarkably small in volume. If all the used nuclear fuel generated over the past 40 years of power generation were stacked on a football field, the pile would be only about five yards deep.

When used nuclear fuel is removed from the reactor vessel, it is first stored for at least five years in specially designed cooling pools in secure buildings. After the initial cooling period, the fuel can then be removed from the pools and placed in robustly designed dry casks for longer term storage or transport to a permanent deep geologic disposal site.

Nuclear plants also produce varying amounts and types of low-level waste, which can be compacted and safely buried in disposal trenches. This low-level wste is often less radioactive than coal ash.

The high-level waste is highly radioactive. Thanks to its small volume, this waste can be meticulously sequestered behind multiple barriers, such as the above-mentioned storage pools and dry casks. It decays steadily, losing 99 percent of its toxicity after 600 years. France has used a most sensible storage method, encapsulating the waste in glass, putting the capsules in stainless steel and lead-shielded containers, and then placing them in underground caves.

But in the United States, nuclear waste disposal is a political problem because environmental groups have fanned widespread fears disproportionate to the risk reality. Since the first nuclear reactors were built and began operation during the middle part of the past century, the U.S. government has acknowledged its obligation to dispose of high-level radioactive materials. This obligation has been codified in law and in contracts with the electric utilities that operate the U.S. fleet of 103 nuclear reactors. Nevertheless, in the face of political pressure from anti-nuclear activists, the government has failed to fulfill its obligation and remains in default of its statutory and contractual obligation. Often, the no-nukes activists are aided and abetted by reporters who are either misinformed or searching for headlines that frighten readers and sell copies.

In 2002, Congress and President George W. Bush approved a plan to dispose of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste in a deep geologic repository 1,000 feet below Yucca Mountain, a remote desert ridge in Nevada. The approval was based on more than 20 years of intensive scientific study that showed the proposed repository would protect public health and safety for thousands of years.

Few scientists question the safety of the site, and there is broad international scientific consensus supporting deep geologic disposal … yet environmental zealots have made it clear they will never accept any site, hoping their opposition will force the nuclear power industry to its knees. They are aided in that quest by the NIMBY syndrome of “not in my back yard,” which ensures some politicians will always oppose unpopular but necessary facilities being located in their districts.

Safety Record

It is indeed remarkable that even the combination of human fallibility and mechanical failure has not prevented the nuclear power industry from achieving a safety record unsurpassed by any other industrial activity over the past 40 years. 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.

As was noted in Part 1 of this series, the U.S. has already experienced the most severe nuclear power accident ever likely to occur in this country: that incident, at Three Mile Island, produced no deaths or injuries. The worst-case nuclear power accident–which could not occur in the United States–also has already occurred, in the former Soviet Union at Chernobyl. It produced only a small fraction of the predicted tragic outcome.

It is totally fraudulent to conjure up in the minds of the public Hollywood movies and “China Syndrome”-like disasters. Yet that is exactly what was done on June 30, 2003, when an activist group calling itself 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.”

Nuclear power plants would not create human catastrophes if targeted by terrorist attacks, as the public is sometimes led to believe. Nuclear power plants are the most secure industrial facilities in the world. They are protected by large, well-trained, and well-armed security teams and are surrounded by three concentric security zones, each providing increased levels of protection.

In addition to physical/vehicle barriers, illuminated detection zones, and state-of-the-art surveillance/detection equipment, reactors at nuclear power plants are encased in steel-reinforced concrete containment structures up to four feet thick. The vitality of this defense-in-depth approach was validated through peer-reviewed engineering analyses by EPRI, a California-based research organization, which determined that the reactor and used fuel storage area would withstand the impact of a wide-body commercial aircraft.

Nuclear power plants are not nuclear bombs, and they cannot be turned into nuclear bombs, regardless of how they might be attacked. Still, their security is in the best interest of all citizens, and indeed they have the very best security money can buy.

The Future of Nuclear Plants

Nuclear power is a safe, cost-effective, and reliable source of baseload electricity–the 24/7 energy that keeps the economy moving. Fortunately, most of the U.S. reactor fleet is expected to renew their operating licenses to continue operation for another 20 years. There are also three new reactor designs already certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a fourth, a larger variation of one of those already certified, is under review.

There are also six exciting new reactor designs being evaluated by the Department of Energy’s Generation IV program. One of these designs, also undergoing testing in South Africa, is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. The reactor encases the nuclear source material in ceramic spheres about the size of tennis balls and transfers the heat into helium gas, which is used to turn a turbine.

The reactor’s temperature reaches about 900 degrees Centigrade–it would take nearly 3000 degrees to melt the ceramic fuel and release any radioactivity. Moreover, the medium of helium dramatically reduces any potential impact on the environment, were a release to occur. The nuclear regulatory commission is supportive of the innovation and appears willing to approve sites for small, 500 megawatt plants.

The Bottom Line

It is profoundly sad 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 not only our own safety and prosperity, but the plight of the least fortunate, poorest fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated on Earth. As energy goes, so goes the health of nations.

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

For more information …

on the environmental stewardship practiced by the nuclear energy industry, see “Power the Future with Environmentally Sound Nuclear Energy: The Ecological Stewardship of the Nuclear Energy Institute.” Published by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the 33-page report is available on its Web site at and through PolicyBot, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot button, and search for document #13885.

The author recommends the following sources of additional information, on which he drew heavily for this article.

Jay H. Lehr, editor, Standard Handbook of Environmental Science, Health, and Technology, McGraw Hill, 2000.

Daniel Eisenberg, “Nuclear Summer,” Time, May 28, 2001.

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

Peter Huber, Hard Green, Basic Books, 2000.

Howard Hayden, The Energy Advocate Newsletter, January 2003 and June 2003.

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

Nuclear Energy Institute, Nuclear Energy Insight Newsletter, January 2003.

Lloyd Mielke, letter to the New York Times, May 17, 2001.

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