To Nuke, or Not to Nuke?

Over the past month and a half I’ve been educating myself about nuclear energy, delving into the pros and cons, the ins and outs, the ups and downs … you get the picture.

While there’s still a lot I don’t know, I think I’ve learned enough to get a decent handle on the most pertinent issues relating to renewable energy and, more importantly, to pose some questions that I think are at the heart of the debate.

So, in no particular order, here goes …

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1. Is nuclear energy a “renewable” energy? Either way, what role, if any, should or will it play in our energy future?

2. The US currently gets around 20% of its electricity from nuclear plants. France gets something like 80%. Why the gap? Can or should the US ramp up its nuclear portfolio?

3. Part of the answer to Question 2 is that the “accidents” at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) scared the crap out of the public and put the nuclear industry on its heels. But have reactor designs and safety measures improved since TMI and Chernobyl? If so, should these improvements result in renewed interest in nuclear power?

4. Again, playing off of Question 2 … why has France been so relatively successful in pushing and developing nuclear power? How successful is the French nuclear program? What are its drawbacks?

5. Is there even a halfway decent idea out there about how to handle nuclear waste? Yucca Mountain seems dead. Or is it? Recycling waste is costly, although France seems to recycle with some success. Could this work in the US?

6. A main argument against building more nuclear power plants is that the waste can be reprocessed and used to make material for nuclear weapons. So first, is there any way to treat or process waste that renders it useless for weapon building? And how does this work? If, God forbid, a terrorist cell were to hijack a shipment of nuclear waste, how simple would it be to turn the stuff into a weapon?

 

Again, I’m still pretty much a novice, but I’ll hazard some answers …

1. Is nuclear energy a “renewable” energy? No, not really, since uranium and other fissionable materials are finite resources. But this doesn’t mean that nuclear doesn’t have any place in a an energy future painted in shades of green. If a central goal is to power the world without pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, nuclear definitely has that going for it. There’s no denying that nuclear is the only energy technology that packs a hell of a punch without emitting any CO2. For this reason alone it would seem to make sense to at least consider making nuclear a bigger part of the energy picture.

2. Why does France seem to have a thriving nuclear system while the US has a bunch of aging power plants and only vague plans, if any, for building more? I don’t know enough yet to answer this with confidence. But from what I’ve learned so far, there are two main factors. First, Three Mile Island really scarred the collective American psyche. After that debacle, and especially after Chernobyl only a few years later, who in their right mind would want a new nuclear plant going up near their town? Not the easiest sell in the world. Plus, the huge cost of building a new nuke plant is prohibitive. But how and why, then, does France continue to build new plants? Are French nuclear plants cheaper to build and operate? I don’t know, but I do know that France has never had a TMI-scale accident. Whether that’s been due to better oversight and management or luck or both, it’s probably easier to support a technology that hasn’t gone terribly wrong in your own country.

I know there’s more to this. I recently watched an old 60 Minutes segment called “Vive Les Nukes,” about how France has emerged as a leader in nuclear electricity generation. You can watch it here. It’s not very informative, and the G.W. Bush flunky touting the former administrations nuclear plans comes off as pretty creepy. 

3. If you want to get a sense of just how frightening TMI and Chernobyl were, check out the book In Mortal Hands, by Stephanie Cooke. It’s a comprehensive history of nuclear power that delves into the darker nooks and crannies of the industry. Lots of disturbing stuff, especially Cooke’s detailed descriptions of TMI and Chernobyl. Also check out the documentaries “Meltdown at Three Mile Island” and “Disaster at Chernobyl.” Now, it’s clear that Chernobyl was an outlier, an epic disaster caused by a fundamentally flawed reactor design and a deeply corrupt and arrogant Soviet system. TMI, though less catastrophic and deadly, is in some ways more disturbing because it seems like something that could happen at any time, despite everyone’s best efforts. And yet, to my knowledge, there’s been no repeat of a TMI-scale event in the US. Does this mean that TMI was an anomaly. Or have safety measures gotten better?  I don’t know.

4. I’m still trying to get a measure of the French nuclear program. At a glance, it seems pretty successful and well run. French electricity is supposedly the cheapest in Europe, although I’ve come across at least one article challenging the “myth” of cheap French power.

5. I don’t yet know enough about recycling waste to understand how well this works or if it’s feasible in the US. Recycling seems to be part of what makes the French system work. 

6. The G.W. Bush administration had supposedly funded research to enable recycling/waste management that doesn’t allow for proliferation. Has there been much progress on this front?

Like with most things, the more I learn about nuclear energy, the more I come to sense its complexity, and begin to get a sense of what I don’t know. So I’d be interested in seeing what others things in response the the questions I’ve posted above, or other questions.

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I'm a writer based in Bloomington, IN. I'm currently writing a book about renewable energy, titled "Renewable: A Reporter's Quest to Make Sense of the Coming Revolution in Alternative Energy," for St. Martin's Press.

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