Nuclear Energy Promise Is Brighter than Ever

Published January 1, 2009

Editors’ note: The following article is the first part of testimony delivered by Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr, Ph.D. before the Colorado legislature on September 16. It is the first in a continuing series of articles by Lehr on nuclear energy.]

We all have heard the expression that some simple technological matter is not “rocket science.” The commercial production of electricity by use of nuclear energy in a nuclear power plant is not rocket science, either. In principle it could not be much simpler.

Put simply, radioactive decay produces heat. We can capture this heat and use it to turn water into steam that turns a turbine and produces electricity.

Thanks to the abundance of radioactive minerals in the Earth’s crust, we can have a limitless supply of reasonably priced energy, so long as we safely contain the radioactive material so that its radiation does not come in contact with people or other living organisms.

Burns Clean, Efficiently

Nuclear power, a product of naval propulsion research, emerged in the United States in the 1950s after the first experimental nuclear power apparatus was created in 1942 by Enrico Fermi and his graduate students at The University of Chicago. The first commercial use of nuclear power came about as a result of its obvious opportunity to create power without the air pollution that came with the burning of fossil fuels.

A Pennsylvania utility, Duquesne Power & Light, built the first commercial nuclear power reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1954, after the community resisted the construction of an additional coal-fired power plant.

The great advantage of nuclear power is its ability to wrest enormous energy from a small volume of fuel. One metric ton of nuclear fuel produces energy equivalent to two million to three million tons of fossil fuel.

Waste volumes are comparably scaled. Fossil fuel systems generate hundreds of thousands of metric tons of gaseous, particulate, and solid wastes, whereas nuclear systems produce less than 1,000 metric tons of low-level waste per plant per year, and only about one metric ton of high-level waste.

The high-level waste is intensely radioactive at first, but its small volume means it can be and is effectively isolated and contained.

No Airborne Pollutants

Nuclear plants do not emit pollutants into the air, and for that reason they do not have smokestacks. Some nuclear power plants have cooling towers, but they emit water vapor. A 1,000-megawatt electric (MWe) coal-fired power plant releases about 100 times as much radioactivity into the environment as a comparable nuclear plant, as a result of naturally occurring radioactive material found in coal.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his famous Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations. The following August, he signed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, ending the government monopoly and giving industry access to government research into power reactor technology.

Within four years, American industry had sold about $1.5 billion worth of nuclear reactors, components, materials, and services in the United States and overseas. By 1964 the first order had been placed for a nuclear power plant that could be justified on purely economic grounds—meaning it was a comparable value for producers and consumers of energy from conventional coal-fired plants. A rush of more than 100 orders followed over the next decade.

The Three Mile Island accident in 1979 created a pause throughout the industry that is only now ending. More than 30 new applications for nuclear plants are currently pending in the United States.

Developed Nations Conservative

There are currently 444 nuclear power plants generating electricity around the world, in 33 different countries.

The United States is still the largest single producer of nuclear energy in the world, with 104 units supplying more than 750 billion kilowatt (kW) hours. This is a 25 percent increase in total power in the past 15 years, as a result of improving equipment, procedures, and general efficiency, without a single new nuclear plant.

France has the second largest number of plants with 58, and it is building three new ones, making it the only industrialized nation still expanding nuclear power production.

Japan now has 54 nuclear power plants, followed by 35 in the United Kingdom, Russia with 29, and Germany at 20. China currently has nine operational plants and many more under construction.

Around the world there are now more than 250 nuclear power plants under consideration, in the planning stages, or under construction.

Renewals Required

Nuclear power plants are generally licensed to operate for 40 years and can apply for a license renewal for an additional 20 years. Because many of the U.S. plants became operational at roughly the same time in the early 1970s, there will be a rapid decrease in nuclear power generation beginning around 2010 unless renewals are issued to the plants with expiring licenses.

It is projected that by 2015, more than one-third of our operating reactor units will come due for license renewal or decommissioning. Fortunately, because of rising electric power demands, license renewals are being given to most plants requesting extensions.

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