Nuclear Energy’s Second Coming


Remember 3 Mile Island? Love Canal? Chernobyl, perhaps?

If not, it would behoove you to avoid education on these disasters. As oil supplies grow scarce, companies like the bluntly-named NRG Energy, Inc., of New Jersey are doing something they haven’t done in 30 years: Building nuclear reactors.

From a Spiegel interview with NRG Energy CEO David Crane:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Republican presidential candidate John McCain has proposed building 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030 with a longer term goal of 55 more. His Democratic opponent Barack Obama is also in favor of more atomic energy. Is the US experiencing a nuclear power renaissance?

CRANE: There is a perception that the American public is ready for nuclear. It’s a combination of things and one of them is generational change. The overriding concern in this country, just like in Europe, is global warming. The recognition by most pragmatic people is that nuclear is the only advanced technology that exists to replace coal-fired power plants on a significant scale. This has jump started the renaissance.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Couldn’t one achieve just as much by conserving energy and improving the efficiency of conventional power plants as well as improving the efficiency of automobiles and buildings? There seems to be quite a bit of potential for that kind of thing in the US.

CRANE: That’s what I call the “Gore Approach.” It’s based on self-denial: Let’s all go back to living without air conditioning and to drying our clothes on the clothes line. There’s another option though. The “Schwarzenegger Approach.” It’s the American Dream, but it’s the carbon-free American Dream…The American Way is based on consumption. You don’t want to change the American way of life, you just want to show them a better way to get there, and nuclear power is a key part of that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Imagining for a moment that many new nuclear reactors do go on line, what is to be done with all of the radioactive waste? Even after years of debate on the issue, there is still no solution regarding final disposal.

CRANE: A lot of people talk about a final solution and we do need one. But this solution of storing it on site, it is deemed to be safe for a long time. Global warming is an immediate issue that nuclear energy can help solve. We should solve this issue now and solve the nuclear waste issue over the next 200 years.

Excuse me, Mr. Crane. I’d rather have a new form of energy that doesn’t involve a future crisis. If nuclear power is unavoidable while we find more sustainable solutions to the energy crisis, I’m all for it–in a limited form. The side effects of mining and enriching uranium, releasing tritium into groundwater, and unstable storage, however, are casualties we can ill afford, either now or in the future.

Nukes may be clean, but they’re not sustainable. I vote against this particular renaissance.

  • nick

    Nuclear power is a great, clean source of power. And the waste issue is completely overblown (especially if we would allow breeder reactors so the spent fuel could be reprocessed). Do you remember Three Mile Island? One of the biggest non-events in history.

    Mentioning Chernobyl is a lame attempt to discredit nuclear power. The failure there is an indictment of Soviet nuclear technology, not nuclear power (especially in the US). Graphite burns, water doesn’t.

  • Drea-I’ve got a bit different view on nuclear. I was in the nuclear navy for over a decade and have been in the power industry for even longer. The only incidents that have occurred are due to poor designs. The bad reputation is mostly due to misinformation and a lack of understanding by most people.

    In the case of Three Mile Island it was a loss of cooling water that should not have occurred. Basically they formed a steam bubble in the core. Since steam is an excellent insulator it caused core temperature to hit meltdown levels. This all could have been avoided by a natural circulation style of cooling.

    Chernobyl had a couple problems. First, it used a moderator that had a positive temperature coefficient. In plain English it means that as temperature increased the core became more active. When all goes well this is more efficient. When life happens it can mean that the core rapidly melts down. Add to this the Soviet disregard for the lives of it’s citizens it is no wonder there was a catastrophe.

    France has a history of safe and efficient nuclear power. They standardize on a few reliable designs and operate them safely.

    There are still issues that need to be addressed. For example: what do you do with spent fuel cells? What can we do to have less impact as we mine for uranium.

    Also we should be looking to grow alternative sources as well. Nuclear is the best current technology. The key is to be developing the next generation power source in parallel.

  • Bob

    Solar and wind are nice because they have no environmental impact after manufacture. Their problem is they can’t come close to the generation capacity of nuclear, and are quite expensive. I have not heard of economically viable alternatives that can replace coal / oil in the near term other than nuclear. By all means, develop alternatives, but nuclear needs to be part of the picture.

  • Drea

    Fascinating–I never heard a perspective on the nuclear disasters mentioned aside from the Godawful Tragedy versions. I agree that nuclear is the best current technology. It sounds like engineering has improved enough to prevent big disasters like those that occurred in the past. I’m gladdened to hear that, because by all indications, nuclear plants will proliferate in the near future, esp. in the Southeastern US. Here in Colorado, uranium mining has become a bit of a devil issue–I do hope people have engineers on process improvements there, and in mining in general.

  • I think that lack of education is what is hurting nuclear’s case. I think everybody needs to do the research before coming to a conclusion. New reactors are so much better than the reactors of old. Sure nuclear isn’t sustainable forever, but I think that we need to invest in all the different types of energies. May the best ones win.

  • I agree. Nuclear Energy is much cleaner than other Power like Gas, Coal. Only water,solar or wind-energy is cleaner. But nuclear Energy needs to be handled with care, cause can be very dangerous.