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Oil crisis fuels nuclear 'buzz'

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Dead and buried.

That has been the status of nuclear power in the United States since the end of the 1970s - since the partial meltdown of the reactor core at Three Mile Island.

Now, though, more than a quarter-century later, astonishingly, there are rumors of its resurrection.

However, with America's oil dependency becoming a dangerous addiction, with the smokestacks of coal and oil-fired power plants adding daily to global warming, with the promise of the alternatives - solar, wind, tidal, hydrogen, fusion, etc. - never really fulfilled, it may not be that nuclear power is coming up in the world. It may only be that everything else is going down.

Nevertheless, there is "the buzz," said Gilbert J. Brown, head of the nuclear engineering department at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. "There is something different out there. We call it a renaissance."

As part of his energy bill, President Bush is calling for the construction of nuclear power plants, the first sought in this country since the 1970s. Recently, he acknowledged the contributions to global warming made by coal-burning power plants, and said that nuclear plants, which do not directly issue greenhouse gases, may be part of the solution.

Once the new debate over nuclear power hits critical mass, though, will it end as the old one did? Will the drawbacks of nuclear power - principal among them the tons and tons of highly radioactive waste, some of which can linger in that state for 250,000 years - still be as ominous as ever?

The next generation of anti-nukes (some of whom were in the last generation) is already forming.

"We've been there before. Nuclear power was a bad idea then, and it's probably a worse idea now," said James F. Manwell, director of the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts. "No one has solved the waste question. And until you solve the waste question, you can't really begin to think about making more nuclear waste."

"It's the height of irresponsibility," said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program. "The waste is the most toxic material ever created. People have spent the last 40 or 50 years trying to find a way to make the nuclear waste go away or become less dangerous, and no one has succeeded. Then, there are the risks of terrorism, which are very real."

Almost 20 years after the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 20 square miles around the plant in northern Ukraine remain uninhabitable. About 31 people were killed immediately by the explosion in April 1986, and thousands of others are expected to die eventually from cancers induced by the radiation released that day over much of eastern Europe - 100 times the radiation that blanketed Hiroshima.

At the time of the disaster, Chernobyl was not immediately held up as an example of the catastrophe terrorism could create. It was more a lesson in poor engineering, but in recent years, especially after the World Trade Center attacks, it has taken on that role.

Given its downside, what is driving the renewed interest in nuclear power?

Primarily two issues - oil and global warming. With oil, the basic equation tells it all. The global demand is growing, driven by developing economies in places like China, and the global supply is diminishing.

Many argue that America's future economic security relies on ridding itself of its dependency on oil and on the unstable nations that produce it as soon as possible.

Concern about the impact of global warming is recruiting supporters of nuclear power from a surprising group - environmentalists. Last year, British environmentalist James Lovelock, best known for his Gaia theory (which says that the Earth functions like a single, living organism) and his role in the start of the green movement, said that nuclear power plants are needed to prevent the awful toll that the burning of fossil fuels - coal, oil, and to some extent natural gas - will exact over the next century.

"I wholly support the 'green' wish to see all energy eventually come from renewable sources, but I do not think that we have the time to wait until this happens," he said. "Nuclear is the only practical energy source that we could apply in time to offset the threat from accumulating greenhouse gases. Its worldwide use as our main source of energy would pose an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of intolerable and lethal heat waves and sea levels rising to drown every coastal city of the world."

His position, which rocked the environmental community, was ridiculed by many of the greens, but from some it found support. Overall, it was a sign of how desperate the energy situation is becoming that even some environmentalists could have second thoughts about nuclear power.

James Tocci, a health physicist in Belchertown who is a consultant to businesses on radiation safety, said that nuclear power has a clear advantage over fossil fuels.

"The differences between nuclear power and fossil fuels are spectacular," he said. "The Environmental Protection Agency says that each year, coal-fired power plants - which are used to generate about 56 percent of the nation's electricity - release more than 2.3 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Natural gas is less polluting than coal, but even power plants that burn natural gas emit carbon that's well in excess of 100 million tons a year. Altogether, power plants that consume fossil fuels account for 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions."

While nuclear power plants produce no greenhouse gases during operation, the mining of uranium produces small amounts, about the same amount per kilowatt-hour as produced in the production of photovoltaic panels for solar power.

Currently, America gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. There are 103 commercial nuclear reactors operating in 31 states. In New England, there are five operating plants - two in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts (the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth), and one plant each in New Hampshire and Vermont.

However, the nation's nukes comprise an aging fleet. The last nuclear plant - one that was not subsequently canceled - was ordered in 1973. New England's operating plants have an average age of almost 25 years.

While the country largely abandoned nuclear power after Three Mile Island in 1979, some other nations did not. France embraced it. Today, 77 percent of that country's electricity needs are met by nuclear power, the highest percentage of any nation.

China, India, and South Africa also have aggressive nuclear power programs. However, other countries, in addition to the United States, have backed away from nukes. Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy have imposed moratoriums on new plants, and are investing heavily in wind power and other renewable sources.

In fact, Italy went so far as to close its existing plants following Chernobyl. However, the country is now the largest importer of electricity in Europe, some of it originating at other nations' nuclear plants.

And in 2003, all of Italy was plunged into darkness, with the blackout lasting up to 18 hours in places, when one of these import lines failed. The situation has revived the debate about resuming a nuclear power program in an effort to make Italy more energy-independent.

Both Tocci and Brown envision a U.S. economy by mid-century in which vehicles run on hydrogen and a new generation of nuclear power plants produces both electricity and hydrogen.

"Hydrogen, as a fuel, does not exist in nature," Brown said. "It will take large quantities of energy to extract it from, for example, ordinary water, and turn it into a useful fuel. Of energy sources that are currently available, nuclear power is the only practical way to produce large quantities of energy for hydrogen production without polluting the air or emitting carbon dioxide.

"Automobiles that run on hydrogen are not decades away; they're being developed now. Several U.S. and foreign auto companies expect to begin producing hydrogen-fueled vehicles for sale in the next several years. They will be far cleaner than gasoline-powered automobiles - emitting only water vapor that does not contribute to smog or global warming."

If plants were to be built, they would be safer than those constructed a quarter-century ago, Brown said.

"A myriad of things have changed," he said. "For one thing, the attention to training is much more sophisticated today. There have also been a lot of hardware design changes that make plants safer. With the new plants, all the lessons learned over the last 25 years have been integrated into them. So they are much simpler to build and operate, and safer for all of that than they were in 1978.

"There is no such thing as zero risk. The risk of nuclear power is not zero. But there are so many other greater risks, a lot of them driven by our need for oil. Nuclear comes out looking pretty good."

Despite the improvements in safety, there has been no improvement in one feature of nuclear reactors - the danger of the wastes they produce.

Typically, a U.S. nuclear plant produces 20 tons of used fuel containing highly radioactive waste every year, materials that will have to be kept isolated for 250,000 years. Currently, the wastes that have been produced over the past 50 years are stored in steel-lined concrete pools near the reactors where they were created.

However, the government wants to place them deep inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The excavated shaft would offer a usable area of about 1,200 acres. The day it opens (and Nevada is fighting to prevent that), the mountain repository is likely to be a third-full already with the currently stored wastes.

However, an MIT study predicted that if nuclear power is embraced internationally as the answer to current energy and climate questions, a storage facility the size of Yucca Mountain would be needed somewhere in the world every three or four years.

Opponents of nuclear power say that we cannot leave that legacy of accumulating wastes to future generations, that such a policy is short-sighted.

"It's crazy," said Manwell, of UMass. "The trouble with nuclear waste is the amount of time you have to store it, 250,000 years. You can't imagine going forward into the indefinite future with a problem you can't solve."

Critics also say that the proliferation of nuclear power plants will mean the proliferation of radioactive materials, raising the chance that terrorists will eventually capture some of it, gaining the ability to create "dirty" bombs or, in the worst case, nuclear weapons.

"Switching from dirty coal plants to dangerous nuclear power is like giving up smoking cigarettes and taking up crack," said Becker of the Sierra Club.

The immediate solution is not a return to nuclear power, said James R. Gomes, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. It is conservation.

"We have untold energy conservation opportunities staring us right in the face which we ought to take advantage of before anyone proposes going back to building more nuclear power plants," he said.

A national program to make vehicles, major appliances, air conditioning systems, and lighting more energy-efficient would eliminate the need for dozens of new, large power plants in coming years, he said.

"Conservation has the potential to deliver the biggest bang for the buck right away," he said.

As a long-term solution, Manwell argues that a cost-efficient, environmentally benign alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power already exists. Wind power that relies on state-of-the-art turbines is now competitive in cost with coal, oil, and gas.

"If you really wanted to do it only with wind, and no one would object on the basis of aesthetics, yes, you could do it," he said. "But that is a lot of steel. The intelligent way to do it is some mixture of wind and solar. You can really go a long way toward solving your problem if you are willing to transcend the short-term worries about how these things look."

In any case, Seth Kaplan, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based environmental lobbying group, said it is time to face the energy question head-on.

"The need for us to come up with an alternative, given global warming, is incredibly powerful," he said. "But we need to be sure we're not going to go down any dead ends. There definitely needs to be a robust dialogue of the pros and cons of the different sources of energy. But in the mix needs to be the true concern for nuclear power, which is the waste disposal issue."

Manwell said that the status quo of using so much oil, coal, and gas to produce electricity is becoming a compelling danger.

"There is the sense that if you don't solve the problem, you've really got a problem," he added.