Nuclear Power Wins Endorsement of Engineers

Published January 1, 2005

The 120,000-member American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) recently endorsed nuclear power as a safe and efficient source for supplying America’s growing energy needs.

ASME is a professional organization focused on technical, educational, and research issues affecting the engineering and technology community. The society’s newly released position statement represents the consensus of two key groups in its membership: the Energy Committee of its Council on Engineering, composed of mechanical engineers from industry, government, and academia, which represents the breadth of knowledge in energy technologies in the United States; and the Nuclear Engineering Division, which represents ASME members with expertise in cutting-edge nuclear engineering technologies.

“Safe, Reliable, Inexpensive”

“Nuclear power has proven safe, reliable, and relatively inexpensive,” notes the ASME statement. “It is now a mature technology. In 2002, the 103 U.S. nuclear power plants averaged 91.2 percent capacity factor, and a record achievement of reliability. Nuclear plants are base-load units (i.e. units that provide power continuously, day and night), with off-peak power costs between 1 and 2 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh).”

According to ASME, U.S. electric power generation comes from the following types of plants: coal-fired (50 percent), nuclear (20 percent), oil and natural gas-fired (21 percent), hydroelectric (7 percent), and miscellaneous sources (2 percent).

“In the next decade,” ASME observes, “new base-load generating capacity will be needed to support U.S. economic growth and to replace older, obsolete plants. All new hydroelectric, nuclear, and coal-fired power plants must overcome formidable and often unpredictable regulatory and permitting obstacles. These risks make normal capital investment and financing more expensive.”

Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, noted, “The record shows that after 40 years of providing much of the world’s energy, nuclear reactors built according to American and Western European standards have been far safer than the burning of any fossil fuels.

“New advanced nuclear power plant designs will be safer still,” predicted Lehr, “and the eventual use of the pebble bed reactors, which depend upon tennis ball-sized mixtures of carbon and uranium coated with ceramic and cooled by helium, will be inherently safe, which is to say their natural activity precludes accidental overheating or escape of radioactivity. Large deposits of uranium ore will eliminate the tensions in the Middle East over oil, the scares over man-induced global warming will end, and mankind will have to find something else to worry about other than running out of energy.”

Environmentally Friendly

The ASME statement notes that nuclear power, an emissions-free power source, will be particularly important if the U.S. steps up energy-intensive industrial processes that require cheap energy. For example, a tremendous amount of energy is required to separate hydrogen from water molecules and turn it into a viable fuel source, or to produce fresh water from briny sea water. Most “renewable” energy sources are expensive, unpredictable, and dangerous to the environment; nuclear energy could be vital to addressing these environmental issues without creating another.

Noted Sterling Burnett, senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, “Clearly, we need nuclear power if we are seriously going to consider turning away from fossil fuels and embracing renewable energy sources. Nuclear power is especially important in that the renewable alternatives all have their own problems.

“Solar power is inordinately costly, and will not be a feasible option anytime in the foreseeable future,” he continued. “Wind and hydro power are more reasonable in terms of cost, but carry their own environmental baggage. Wind turbines are notoriously prolific bird killers, and the dams necessary for hydropower are alleged to destroy natural ecosystems and be particularly harmful to migrating salmon.”

Public Acceptance Is Increasing

Regulatory instability and an inconsistency in according permits to build new nuclear power plants remain major obstacles that federal and local governments must address, according to ASME.

“Untoward legal intervention has in the past delayed construction and operation with consumers and shareholders forced to absorb the attendant huge costs,” notes the group’s position statement. “Legal intervention can be minimized by pre-approved licenses and by imposing cost penalties for lawsuits determined to be frivolous. Federal loan guarantees would reduce the financial risks of these obstacles.”

ASME also points to the importance of “public and mass media support or at least acceptance,” which it considers “essential for the construction of new nuclear plants.” ASME notes that “recent surveys have shown strong public support for maintaining (64 percent), and even increasing (50 percent), the current level of nuclear power in the United States. However, NIMBY, the ‘not-in-my-back-yard,’ philosophy is prevalent for all new energy production facilities, regardless of [type of] fuel [used].”

ASME believes the construction of several new nuclear units at existing nuclear plant sites would be acceptable in communities that already have clean, safe nuclear power plants as benign neighbors. “In addition to transparency in public education, the general news media must be given reliable information they can use to offset the more sensational scare scenarios of the vocal anti-nuclear activists.”

“There are more political disadvantages to nuclear power than there are problems regarding safety or physics,” said Burnett. “Specifically, political pressure has resulted in redundant, superfluous safety measures that are unnecessary but unduly costly. These added costs create a large enough overhead that nuclear power cannot yet compete with fossil fuels regarding cost per end product.

“New technologies are being developed that will make the redundant safety features unnecessary,” Burnett said. “This will not only make any possibility of a China Syndrome scenario impossible, but will also serve to lower overhead costs by eliminating the superfluous safety features.”

Said Lehr, “Nuclear energy of the future will not just be the greatest thing since sliced bread; it is even better than sliced bread.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

visit the Web site of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME),