Apr 15, 2007

A new frontier for nuclear power?

Bush plan to expand nuclear power moves forward
By ANDY LENDERMAN | The New Mexican
April 15, 2007

From a prototype plant to uranium mining, NewMexico could be on the verge of an energy boom, but many say the risks outweigh the rewards

ROSWELL -- The Johnsons waited hours before they spoke.

First they heard from private companies that might build a nuclear power plant in Chaves County: The $25 billion construction project would bring 15,000 jobs and plenty of electricity to sell.

Then the critics: Nuclear waste is bad for our health. We like our town the way it is. And what about the water?

Ranch owner Jarrod Johnson, his wife, Laura, and several of their neighbors were listening to a crash course on President Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a program that aims to build a prototype nuclear power plant and a spent-fuel recycling center near Roswell -- or in one of 10 other places in the country.

New Mexico could be on the cusp of a statewide nuclear-power boom. In addition to the possibility of a plant in the south, private companies are hoping to resume uranium-mining operations in Western New Mexico, and Los Alamos National Laboratory is a candidate for the partnership's advanced research center.

The idea of the federal project is to make the country more energy independent and reduce global warming from carbon emissions.

But the reality on the ground is that not everyone wants it, and many are worried about radioactive waste.

Laura Johnson walked to the microphone at the Roswell Convention Center in March, and told the company representatives that her ranch is about seven miles from the proposed power plant and recycling center.

``I have children, and I plan on having more children,'' she said, referring to concerns about health effects.

That's a big political problem for nuclear power.

Many people don't trust assurances that poisonous waste will not enter the water, air and food chain.

But Johnson's children and other children face another problem, some argue, that's just as deadly as an accidental release of nuclear waste -- global warming.

Proponents are using global warming as an argument in favor of nuclear power over more coal-fired power plants.

Some recent research shows that changing weather patterns could turn parts of New Mexico into a permanent dust bowl, and drought could become a normal part of life here.

Also humbling is the hard reality that someday global production of oil, natural gas and other finite fossil fuels will peak and fade away.

About half the country's electricity came from coal in 2005, the Energy Information Administration reports. Nuclear power accounts for about 19 percent; natural gas, 19 percent; hydroelectric, 7 percent; and petroleum, 3 percent. Other renewables were listed at about 2 percent of the total.

A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study noted that even though coal's high carbon content threatens to exacerbate the problem of climate change, coal is a low-cost mainstay of both the developed and developing world, and its use is projected to increase.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that two new coal-fired power plants per week are coming online around the world.

Some energy experts say solar and wind power is the way to go, especially in sunny New Mexico. Others dismiss it as an unreliable, small-scale solution to a energy problem that needs fixing right now.
Solve energy problems, go nuclear
New Mexicans are very familiar with this country's leading proponent of nuclear power -- U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, a Republican from Albuquerque.

Domenici is not shy about his vision: An advanced research center at Los Alamos National Laboratory to study new technology; a fuel recycling center to take partially spent nuclear fuel and reprocess it into something that can be burned; and a burner reactor that would produce electricity from this newly processed fuel.

That's the crux of the president's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which would also forge alliances with other countries in an effort to exchange reactor fuel, share expertise and help developing countries get cheap power. The idea is that the partnership would allow the U.S. to keep track of nuclear fuel and technology, and make sure it's used for power and not bombs.

So far, Congress has allocated roughly $197 million to the concept, but nothing's been built. The project is in the research and planning stages now.

``It is certainly no secret that I am a major supporter of nuclear power because it is a clean, efficient power source,'' Domenici said in a statement. ``Other nations have taken advantage of nuclear power, but thus far, the U.S. has been left behind.''

The U.S. currently has 103 reactors, which supply roughly 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

Traditional light-water nuclear reactors burn only about 4.5 percent of the uranium fuel, creating a problem of how to dispose of what's left. The government's permanent nuclear waste dump, Yucca Mountain, has yet to open because of major political opposition and environmental concerns.

Today, there's about 56,000 metric tons of spent civilian nuclear fuel being stored at more than 100 nuclear reactors in 39 states, Domenici's office reported.

The president's program would expand nuclear power using technology for reprocessing spent fuel. Similar technology is already in use elsewhere in the world.

Domenici said the recycled and fabricated fuel from a new reprocessing facility will be sold to foreign markets, as well as support the U.S. expansion of nuclear energy.

Here's how the reprocessing works, according to the Department of Energy and Domenici's office: The uranium would be separated from spent nuclear fuel and used again either in a traditional reactor or in the new advanced reactor outlined in the president's program.

Transuranics -- plutonium, neptunium, americium and curium -- could be separated from the spent fuel and combined into a new fuel to be burned in the advanced burner reactor.

And radioactive material with a long life, such as technetium and iodine, could be separated from the spent fuel and disposed of.

Reprocessing could take care of much of the waste-disposal problem and concerns that the material could be used to make nuclear weapons, proponents say.

That advanced fuel is still in the research stage.

``We're looking to the future to find a new fuel,'' said Terry Wallace, principal associate director for science at Los Alamos. ``I think that we know it's doable. But I think we want to make sure it's done in the most efficient form. # We've got to make sure that we understand where this fuel is at all times.''

Several retired Los Alamos scientists came out to boost the project in a public meeting there earlier this year.

``The idea of transitioning from the current way of generating to a new way of generating that does not result in the enormous waste stream is doable without any breakthroughs at all,'' retired scientist Don Petersen said. ``There's nothing more than engineering that has to be established in order to move into the fast reactor recycle mode.''

Wallace added that burning one ton of coal creates three tons of carbon dioxide.
Thanks, but we don't want it here
Jarrod Johnson's ranch is about seven miles downwind from the privately-owned, 480-acre parcel owned by Gandy-Marley Inc., a local company with cattle and other business interests. That land is being considered, with 10 other places around the country, as a host for the burner reactor or the recycling center.

Johnson and his wife run a cattle operation that's been in Jarrod's family since 1914, more than four generations.

Johnson said he hears more about money than he does health concerns when he attends meetings on the subject.

``Is money more important than health?'' Laura Johnson asked. ``I don't think so.''

Alan Dobson of Energy Solutions LLC took the heat for most of the night at the Roswell meeting. He's a nuclear scientist with experience at similar reprocessing centers in Great Britain. He raised his own family near the Sellafield nuclear site in northwest England and repeatedly defended the nuclear industry's safety record.
``I don't believe that there would be any harmful effect,'' he said in response to one health concern.

There is some support for the project locally. But most of the folks who came to the Roswell Convention Center last month had a lot of unfriendly things to say. And this is Bush-Cheney country.

``I think it's an example of being too good to be true,'' Michelle Pettit said.

Dairy owner Linda Squire of Hagerman pointed out the region has hundreds of thousands of cattle and produces lots of crops.

``The worst-case scenario for your business would be disastrous for our business as well,'' Squire said.

Others asked why New Mexico couldn't tap into its sun and wind power potential.
``I love New Mexico,'' teacher Cheryl Rumbaugh said. ``I'm proud of New Mexico, and I want to keep New Mexico a clean place to live. # We have the resources for alternative energy sources, sustainable energy sources.''

Dobson was supportive of those concepts but said, ``I don't believe that the United States' energy needs # can come from solar and wind power. Wind and solar cannot replace the baseload as it stands today.''

Don Hancock of the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center said concentrated solar does have potential, if the government would help.
``If we spent a fraction on commercializing renewable technology and transmission that DOE wants to spend on GNEP and reprocessing, we would certainly have huge scale,'' he said.

Hancock, whose watchdog group has tracked nuclear issues for decades, said GNEP is ``economically budget-busting, environmentally catastrophic, and it proliferates nuclear materials.''

GNEP, by definition, he added, is proliferation. ``We're giving nuclear technology, nuclear fuel, to places that don't have it.''

And he took issue with the global-warming concern, which has given nuclear power a political boost of late: ``We've had nuclear power plants in the United States for the last 50 years. Has that solved global warming?''

One thing not in dispute, for now, is that the world's population is expected to reach 8.2 billion by 2030. And electricity demand could double.

Contact Andy Lenderman at 995-3827 or alenderman@sfnewmexican.com.

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