Apr 15, 2007

The nuclear option

Sunday, April 15, 2007 Worcester Telegram & Gazette
Needed: Renewed focus on non-fossil power source

President Bush’s warning in 2005 that “a secure energy future for America must include more nuclear power” has been largely ignored in the course of the national energy debate, doomed by political indifference and the pervasive nuclear phobia in some parts of environmental establishment. Today, escalating concerns about the effect of fossil fuels on the climate and uncertainty about oil sources in the Mideast, Venezuela and Mexico are prompting an overdue reassessment of nuclear power by politicians and environmentalists alike.

Of all currently available technologies, none holds greater promise than nuclear power of drastically reducing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil — and on electricity produced by coal, oil and natural gas generation.

The safety and efficacy of nuclear power has been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt for more than four decades. In France, for instance, more than 50 nuclear plants supply 80 percent of the country’s electricity and export power to several neighboring countries as well.

Although many Americans may be unaware of it, nuclear generation accounts for one-fifth of the nation’s electricity supply, even though political reaction to the Three-Mile Island accident has stopped the industry dead in its tracks nearly three decades. Even in Massachusetts, which currently has just one operating nuclear power plant, figures from the Energy Information Administration show that as of December 2006 nuclear power accounted for 11.4 percent of the state’s electricity (compared with 83 percent from polluting fossil fuels).

Based on EPA figures, the Nuclear Energy Institute calculates that, in 2005, electricity from the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth avoided emissions of acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide totaling 10,300 tons and greenhouse gas carbon dioxide totaling 3.4 million metric tons. It also avoided emissions of smog-producing nitrogen oxides totaling 2,700 tons — the amount released in a year by 140,000 passenger cars.

To be sure, safety issues need to be addressed. The ill-fated Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union — an unmitigated failure of management and design — made a seemingly indelible impression on the American psyche. Managerial arrogance figured in the accident at Three-Mile Island as well, but the fact is that the containment system worked as designed — the horror scenario of the fictional “China Syndrome” notwithstanding.

The Navy’s nuclear fleet also is proof of the safety of properly designed plants, as is the equally enviable safety record of civilian nuclear power, both in the United States and Europe.

What to do with the spent fuel is a legitimate concern. Part of the solution is reprocessing and reusing spent fuel rods, a proven option as long as security concerns are fully addressed. The Carter administration rejected reprocessing because of nuclear proliferation fears.

Long-term storage is another. The Yucca Mountain site under construction in Nevada has been delayed by political opposition for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, spent fuel is being held in temporary storage at more than 100 civilian and military locations in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and 34 other states. The sooner it is entombed in stable rock strata hundreds of feet below the surface the better.

The record of nuclear power industry in the United States and abroad shows it to be a safe, clean alternative to fossil fuels. It certainly is the most readily achievable means to reduce fossil fuels’ very real environmental and geopolitical risks.

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