SustainAbility: Nuclear industry
Last year, over a six-month span, I received several letters from a dedicated reader self-described as “an old environmental war horse.”
The letters repeatedly referred to nuclear energy, citing concerns about nuclear waste and terrorism.
Since then, I have struggled with how to approach this complicated issue. With the nuclear crisis in Japan, the topic has become unavoidable.
The recent disaster certainly reinforces the cloud of doubt surrounding this form of power, but are we overreacting?
Comparisons to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have already begun. Radiation is an invisible enemy that can kill instantly or take its own sweet time.
My intention is to take another look at the role of nuclear reactors in an energy mix that can help cure our oil addiction.
I sincerely wish we did not even need to consider nuclear energy as a power source. Aggressive energy efficiency can play a big part in reducing fossil fuel dependence, as can solar, wind, geothermal and hybrid and electric cars.
However, I do not see our government supporting regulations and incentives needed to quickly propel alternative energy sources into prominence and fill the void.
In spite of initially large expenditures, nuclear power plants produce low-cost electricity efficiently without creating greenhouse gas emissions or other pollutants.
Recent technological advances in nuclear energy, particularly the passive safety systems of third-generation plants, lay to rest some doubts. New reactors are designed to simply shut down the atomic reaction if cooling pumps fail. Gravity-fed water cooling, that doesn’t rely on electricity, is another new emergency feature.
The United States generates less than 20 percent of its electricity from 104 commercial nuclear reactors in 31 states. Although the United States produces the highest number of terawatt hours of electricity in the world from nuclear reactors, other countries tap into nuclear energy for a higher percentage of their power.
France generates 80 percent of its electricity from reactors, while Sweden produces 44 percent. Japan counts on nuclear reactors for 29 percent, and the figure is 15 percent in Canada.
Several well-known environmentalists have come out in favor of nuclear power, including Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, and Stewart Brand, editor of the 1968 hippie handbook, Whole Earth Catalog.
In 2005, The Environmental Defense Fund dropped its hostile position to nuclear energy and adopted a neutral stance on the issue.
We are all aware of the loss of human life and environmental damage caused last year by the extraction of fossil fuels. Eleven people died in the Deep Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico while 29 more died in a West Virginia coal mine.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2008 there were 120 fatal work injuries in the oil and gas industry. Few people suggest abandoning these forms of energy based on the risks.
Green America advocates we just say, “No” to nuclear power. The organization promotes “safer, cheaper, faster, more secure, and less wasteful” alternatives. To see a list of 10 reasons for this position, go to http://www.greenamerica.org/programs/climate/dirtyenergy/nuclear.cfm.
The proposed uranium mine near Naturita brings the issue of radioactive materials to a local level.
Energy Fuels Resources has assured residents the plant will have zero discharge, preventing human contact with radioactive material throughout the process. Not everyone is convinced.
I do not know if nuclear power is the solution to our energy woes, but I am keeping an open mind instead of having a knee-jerk reaction without exploring facts.
Is an increased reliance on nuclear energy viable in the United States?
Send me your take on the subject, and I’ll include comments in an upcoming column.