Last Word
Nuclear Power – An Energy Policy Must!
From 1950 to 1980, more than 110 nuclear plants were built in the U.S.—since then, not one. The 104 plants that remain in operation generate 20 percent of all electricity consumed in the U.S. In 1977, President Carter, concerned about plutonium getting into the wrong hands, banned the recycling of spent unclear fuel rods, and in so doing magnified the quantity of nuclear waste we produce. We now store more than 58,000 metric tons at 65 locations. To meet environmental demands, storage facilities must be secure for 10,000 years. However, we can now, with new technologies, recycle this waste, generating enough energy to more than pay for the process. In so doing, we reduce the volume of radioactive material for long-term storage to a fraction of the original amount and the resulting material need only be secured for 300 years.

Although the Three Mile Island leak resulted in no lives lost, it created a great deal of fear. These feelings were compounded by the films The China Syndrome and Silkwood. The Chernobyl disaster was tragic and much more significant, but it is important to remember the accident was due to poor operational and safety standards, a botched and unauthorized test by engineers and poor reactor design. Since then, the design, construction and operational standards of nuclear plants have progressed considerably; in the past 25 years, no serious accidents have occurred anywhere in the world.

Globally, there are now 439 nuclear plants, which provide about 16 percent of the world’s power. In France, 59 plants supply 77 percent of the power. Because France reprocesses its waste, the volume of radioactive material that must be put into long-term storage is relatively small. Other countries operating nuclear plants include Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Finland, India, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Czech Republic, Brazil, Pakistan, South Africa, Slovakia, Slovenia, China, Japan and Taiwan.

AREVA, the leading designer and builder of nuclear plants worldwide, is developing advanced reactor technology that could drastically reduce the quantity and radioactive half life of nuclear waste. The company likes to point out that 96 percent of the material in used fuel is reusable. By feeding the U.S.’s accumulated nuclear waste into such technology, a great deal of energy could be generated and the volume could be reduced to just 4 percent of the original. Even with existing technology, when nuclear waste is reprocessed in fuel and reused, the result is more energy and about one quarter the waste. Concerns about the plutonium manufactured during reprocessing are understandable. However, AREVA has successfully developed highly secure mechanisms for handling the material, one of which is that they stop the refining process well short of making weapons-grade plutonium.

Clearly the problem of what to do with nuclear waste is not nearly as hard to solve as the public believes. On the other hand, the benefits of nuclear power are numerous: there are no CO2 emissions (France has reduced its CO2 emissions by 25 percent since 1980), and the cost of nuclear power is less than coal. The list (above) includes the 13 countries that have achieved the greatest increase in the amount of nuclear power generated during the decade 1992 – 2002.

The world is realistically and sensibly moving toward nuclear power. For emotional, political or possibly irrational environmental reasons, the U.S. is dragging its heels even though it has the most nuclear experience. It is time to capitalize on this potential to our tremendous benefit.

Sources: Journal of Metals, Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Readers’ Digest, IEA

Last Word is a place for alumni and other members of the Mines community to articulate their opinions. Its content does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Colorado School of Mines or the alumni association. We have made an attempt to fact check, but readers are advised to independently confirm the veracity of claims made in this and other Last Word articles.