Nuclear Power Can Complete Transition to Clean Energy

Published August 6, 2010

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 (Bartleby Press 2008), 420 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0910155762.

William Tucker is a veteran journalist who has written about energy in many major newspapers and magazines. His most recent book, Terrestrial Energy, provides a riveting insight into the past 30 years of our search for inexpensive, prolific energy, while explaining how and why nuclear power will provide the answer to this search.

Disappointingly, Tucker buys into global warming alarmism, and he treats solar energy advocate Amory Lovins with undeserved deference. But perhaps such treatment is just what we need to get society to pay attention to Tucker’s discussion of nuclear energy, which will one day fuel the planet if the wastefulness of nonnuclear renewable energy does not first send us into planetwide bankruptcy.

Although Tucker’s book has been promoted as focusing on nuclear power, only Section Four—the last 147 pages of this 388 page text (followed by 40 pages of references)—discusses the history of nuclear power and its potential renaissance. 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 for Section Four.

A Conventional Energy Source
It is odd it that nuclear energy has to be reintroduced to our nation as if it were a new technology. It continues to supply almost 20 percent of the nation’s electric power even though it has been decades since a new nuclear power plant has been designed, approved, and built in the United States.

Tucker makes it clear nuclear power is a form of terrestrial energy—it is the same process that heats the center of the earth to 7000 degrees Fahrenheit. The concentration of power in the nucleus of an atom is incredible, and as a result nuclear technology can provide an inexpensive, nearly limitless supply of power.

Tucker notes a 1000 megawatt coal-fired power plant burns 110 railcars of coal each day, whereas an equally powerful nuclear plant requires a single tractor trailer to deliver  new fuel rods just once every 18 months. Although he does not oppose either solar or wind power, Tucker  points out they require 100 times more land than either coal or nuclear powered plants. Actually, he’s only half right—the number is more than 200 times more land.

History, Lessons Learned
Tucker recounts the history of nuclear technology, from the Manhattan Project to Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace to the Three Mile Island debacle to nuclear technology as it exists today. Importantly, Tucker provides a brilliant analysis of the knowledge learned and the safety mechanisms developed in the wake of the Three Mile Island incident.

For 10 years after Three Mile Island, the nuclear power industry focused on improving its efficiency from top to bottom. At the time of the incident, nuclear plant efficiency averaged barely 50 percent, meaning the plants were putting out their rated capacity of energy only half the time. That efficiency has climbed to 94 percent today.

As a result, today we produce 25 percent more power with the same 104 operating plants than we did 20 years ago, even though it has been decades since a new plant went online in the United States.

Tucker’s chapter on radiation explains in layman’s terms the complex subject of alpha, beta, and gamma waves. He compellingly explains the reverse effect of low levels of radiation, called hormesis, which benefits human health. It is scientifically unsupportable to claim that if a lot of something—such as radiation—harms you then a little of that same something must necessarily be bad for you too.

Reprocessing a Global Success
His final chapter, “France and the Future,” is like a glass of fine red wine from a French vineyard—smooth, delicious, and to be savored. Tucker takes us on a tour of France’s nuclear industry, which provides 80 percent of that nation’s electric power with so little waste that it has all been stored in the basement of a single building.

This minuscule amount of waste has been turned into glass and will remain in this state until it becomes harmless.

In the United States, by contrast, we have battled for decades over where to store our large quantities of waste. Foolishly, we never reprocess it as the French do. Nor have we utilized the rigorously designed and incredibly secure Yucca Mountain facility, which can quite safely store all the waste that we have decided, for political reasons, not to reprocess. The Obama administration has chosen to forbid it, thus stifling any contemplated growth of the nuclear power industry.

Tucker concludes his book with a chapter on Waste and Proliferation that convincingly argues we should reprocess our nuclear waste as every other country in the world chooses to do. It is not an easy read for those who do not have a background in reprocessing history and technology. Hence I will attempt to simplify Tucker’s excellent description of reprocessing technology in my next column on All Things Nuclear.

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