Testimony on the Future of Nuclear Power

Published September 16, 2008

Dr. Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, was asked by the Joint Committee on Energy of the Colorado legislature to provide testimony about the future of nuclear power. He appeared before the committee on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008 and presented these remarks.

We all have heard the expression that some simple technological explanation is not “rocket science.”

Well actually 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.

If we bypass the movement and transitions of atomic particles produced by naturally decaying radioactive materials such as uranium, we can simply accept the fact that radioactive decay produces heat. We can capture this heat from water directly heated by radioactive material via conduction across a metal walled container into clean water circulating through a closed loop pipe. The water eventually becomes steam that turns a turbine, and produces electricity.

Due to the abundance of radioactive minerals in the earth’s crust, we can have a limitless supply of reasonably priced energy, as long as we safely contain the radioactive material so that its radiation does not come in contact with people or for that matter any living organism.


Nuclear power, a product of naval propulsion research, emerged in the United States in the 1950’s although the very first experimental nuclear power apparatus was created in 1942 by Enrico Fermi and his graduate students at the University of Chicago. Its first commercial use 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, Pa. in 1954, after the community had 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, but 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.

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 that are sometimes mistaken for smokestacks, but those cooling towers emit water vapor. In fact a 1000-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 Eisenhower delivered his famous Atoms for Pease speech to the United Nations. The following August the President 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. 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, which is only now ending with more than 30 new applications pending for nuclear plants in the United States.

Present Status

There are currently a total of 444 nuclear power plants generating electricity around the world within 33 different countries.

The United States is still the largest single producer of nuclear energy in the world with 104 units that supply more than 750 billion kilowatt (kW) hours. This is an increase of 25 percent of total power in the past 15 years, all 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 they are 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 U.K., then Russia with 29, and Germany, 20. China currently has nine operational plants and many more under construction.

Around the world there are now more than 250 nuclear power plants being considered, planned or under construction.

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

In fact it is projected that by the year 2015, over a 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.

Unwarranted Fears

For too long the nuclear industry has been a victim of scare tactics and outrageously false propaganda. The truth about nuclear power is that it provides a viable and safe means for satisfying our growing need for electricity. Continuous concerns over critical energy shortages in this country are sparking a renewed interest in nuclear power on the part of Americans who do not want to be left in the dark.

Proven Safety

The event at Three Mile Island occurred from faulty instrumentation that gave erroneous readings for the reactor-vessel environment. Due to a series of equipment failures and human errors, plus inadequate instrumentation, the reactor core was compromised, and underwent a partial melt. Yet radioactive water released from the core configuration was safely confined within the containment building structure, and very little radiation was released into the environment.

The Three Mile Island incident actually underscores the relative safety of nuclear power plants since the safety devices worked as designed and prevented any injury from occurring to humans, animals, or the environment.

Moreover, the accident directly resulted in improved procedures, instrumentation, and safety systems. Our nuclear reactor power plants are now substantially safer. Three Mile Island’s Unit One is still operating with an impeccable record.

The worst nuclear power plant disaster in history occurred when the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine experienced a heat (not nuclear) explosion. If such an explosion were to have occurred in a western nuclear power plant, the explosion would have been contained because all Western plants are required to have a containment building a solid structure of steel-reinforced concrete that completely encapsulates the nuclear reactor vessel.

The Chernobyl plant did not have this fundamental safety structure, and so the explosion blew off the top of the reactor building, spewing radiation and reactor core pieces into the air. The fire spread radioisotopes around the area, not the explosion. The graphite reactor burned ferociously, which could not have happened if they had a containment building from which oxygen could be excluded.

But the design of the Chernobyl plant was inferior in other ways as well. Unlike the Chernobyl reactor, Western power plant nuclear reactors are designed to have negative power coefficients of reactivity under operating conditions that make such runaway accidents impossible.

In other words when control of the reaction is lost, the reaction slows down rather than speeds up.

The bottom line is that the flawed Chernobyl nuclear power plant would never have been licensed to operate in the U. S. or any other Western country, and the accident that occurred there simply could not occur elsewhere.

The circumstances surrounding the Chernobyl accident were in many ways the worst possible with an exposed reactor core and an open building. Thirty-one plant workers and firemen died directly from radiation exposure at Chernobyl.

In September 2000, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published its Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes, a document of some 1220 pages in two volumes. Annex J(vol.2,pp. 453-551) deals with exposures and effects of the Chernobyl accident.

The report concluded that apart from about 1,800 thyroid cancer cases, with 99+ percent cured, registered in children and in some adults, there is no evidence of any major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure after the accident.

There is no increase in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukemia, which due to its short latency time is a good indicator of radiation harm, is not elevated among about 5 million inhabitants of the contaminated regions, nor among the evacuated persons or recovery operation workers.

No deaths directly attributable to exposure from the Chernobyl radiation have been found in the population of the contaminated regions.

Cancer incidence rates over the most contaminated regions of Ukraine are found to be consistently lower than rates over the country as a whole. The incidence of solid cancers among Russian recovery operation workers is observed to be significantly lower than that in the general population

This is consistent with studies from the World War II atomic bomb blasts where small doses of radiation received far from ground zero produced lower cancer rates than the general population. It is also consistent with considerable new medical research indicating that low-dose radiation may serve to protect at-risk individuals from the development of cancer.

The whole-body radiation dose due to the Chernobyl fallout received during the past 15 years by individuals in the most contaminated parts of the former Soviet Union (about 1 mSv per year) is ten to 100 times lower than the dose of ionizing radiation from natural sources received by individuals in many regions of the world. Neither radiation-induced diseases nor any genetic disorders have ever been found in these regions.

Genetic disorders have not been found even in the offspring of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims exposed to a very high radiation dose from the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945.

Nuclear Power Cost

Today approximately 80 percent of France’s electricity demand is met by nuclear energy, while Britain uses nuclear energy to generate 23 percent of its electricity. Other countries fall in between: Spain 29 percent; Germany and Finland, 32 percent; Sweden, 44 percent, and Belgium, 58 percent.

Outlays for fuel, operations and maintenance at U.S. nuclear plants average around 1.75 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Costs have declined in recent years due to improved plant processes.

Production costs do not represent the complete cost to consumers of nuclear-generated electricity. However, low production costs position the nation’s 104 operating nuclear power plants to thrive in a competitive electricity marketplace even after ongoing capital costs, property taxes and other expenses are added.

The Waste Problem

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 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 tons. In addition 800 tons of wastes 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 percent 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 not an engineering problem as a result of widespread fears disproportionate to the risk reality.

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 nations 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 ever accept any site.

Concurrently the NIMBY syndrome of “not in my back yard” will keep the pot boiling for years to come.

Power Plant Safety

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.

Nuclear Fleet Safety

I believe two major factors account for our failures.

First, many Americans have an irrational fear of anything “nuclear.” They are willing to use radiation to fight cancer, detect other diseases, irradiate food. But mention nuclear energy, and a strange syllogism forms in the minds of millions of citizens. Nuclear means bombs and mushroom clouds; radiation means death. That almost instinctive chain of thought, flawed as it is , gives use of nuclear energy a pretty steep hill to climb with many of citizens.

Nuclear power plants roam the world daily with never a problem. Nuclear power is safe and sure. Every week, one or two nuclear power plants dock at a major port in America or somewhere else in the world. And these power plants have been doing so for half a century now….No accidents of any kind have ever marred these dockings, no leaks have cleared blocks of cities; no emergencies have been declared.”

It is amazing how this nation has lost sight of the fabulous fleet of nuclear submarines that have operated below the radar these past 50 years. The Nautilus, our first nuclear powered submarine, was launched in 1954. Since then, the Navy has launched over 200 nuclear-powered ships, and 82 currently are in operation.

Recently, the Navy was operating slightly over 100 hundred reactors, about the same number as those operating in civilian power stations across the country.

Nuclear ships are welcomed into 150 ports in 50 countries. They have traveled 128 million miles without serious incidents. Navy reactors have twice the operational hours of our civilian systems. This is a record of safety, an achievement that the public needs to understand.

The blame for our domestic nuclear program running off the rails belongs to Jimmy Carter. The man who majored in Nuclear Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy halted all U.S. efforts to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and develop mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for our civilian reactors. He anticipated that such U.S. morality would serve as an example to the rest of the world to follow suit.

In fact no other country followed suit.

These countries did not follow our example because our policy was considered to be both economically and technically unsound.

Our failure to address an incorrect premise has harmed our efforts to deal with spent nuclear fuel and the disposition of excess weapons material as well as our ability to influence international nuclear power issues. We lost our leadership role in the development of safe, proliferation-resistant technology.

A 1000 Megawatt nuclear power plant (the standard size in the U.S.) occupies 213 acres or about one third of a square mile, it would take more than 5000 windmills on 200 square miles to create that much power from wind.

Our rich uranium supplies and those existing around the world can readily put an end to petroleum politics that have held many developing nations hostage.

But additionally we have a national treasure of uranium just sitting in our spent nuclear fuel storage pools. Each used rod is comprised of 95.6 percent uranium. The United States has already demonstrated at the Argonne National Laboratory that it can separate out this uranium at a high enough quality that it can be re-enriched and manufactured again into new fuel for our current generation of reactors.

Safety from Terrorists

It should also be noted 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.

Future 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.

Exelon Corp., formed from a merger of Philadelphia Electric Co. and Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison is building the South African plant with great anticipation that this system will work. The nuclear regulatory commission is thus far supportive of this innovation and appears willing to approve sites for small 500 mega-watt plants.

Bottom Line

It is now completely absurd that the minds of so many remain poisoned against the cheapest, most abundant and safest form of energy on the planet.

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 men, 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. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.