01 Aug 2003 Nuclear Power: Clean, Safe and Needing a Level Playing Field, by Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford
Nuclear power is economical. All it needs is a level playing field.
But the field is not level. For one thing, competing power sources are heavily subsidized by society. Unlike nuclear plants, they don’t bear the full cost of disposing of their waste. Much of it is just dumped into the atmosphere – pollution that degrades the environment and causes illnesses and early deaths. If nuclear plants were given tax credits for the environmental damage they don’t cause – or if the others were charged for the harm they do cause – nuclear would win the economic shakeout hands-down.
If Congress would assure the nuclear industry that regulations governing the industry would remain reasonably stable, the plants would be built.
Do we need nuclear power at all? You bet. Without it, we can’t protect the environment and at the same time supply adequate electricity to the 10 billion people who soon will be populating the earth.
Some myths get in the way. There’s the notion that the United States or the European Union could – if they chose – be independent of oil imports. There’s the misconception that nuclear power is the most dangerous energy source, whereas it’s the safest. And there’s the delusion that alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind and biomass, can replace fossil fuels and nuclear power while maintaining modern living standards. Widespread faith in these myths has inhibited the development of a realistic energy policy.
What about burning more oil or natural gas to produce electricity? Forget it. Oil and natural gas are too valuable for transportation, heating, and plastics to fritter them away generating bulk electric power in developed nations. Before the switch to natural gas for heating, cities were not healthful places to live. Already there is trouble: the growing use of natural gas for making electricity has led to tight supplies and an upward spiral in the cost of heating our homes.
Environmentalists need to realize that, for the bulk of our electricity, the choice is nuclear power or coal – and unrestrained coal burning would be an environmental disaster. Air pollution alone from fossil electric plants causes tens of thousands of deaths each year. This is due to the toxicity of the emissions combined with the scale of the operation: a single thousand megawatt-electric plant burns about three million tons of coal each year. Compare that with a nuclear plant’s two-and-a-half tons of uranium, with all the waste contained.
The waste from nuclear plants must be isolated for a fairly long time (but not as long as many think – only a few hundred years, if the used fuel is properly recycled). It can be handled with essentially no impact on the general public or the environment. Not so the millions of tons of waste each year from a coal-powered plant.
What about radiation from nuclear plants? Not a problem. It has been known for a long time that coal plants put more radioactivity into the atmosphere (from trace impurities in the coal) than nuclear plants do, even when more than 95 percent of the fly ash is precipitated, and vastly more when it is not. This is not, however, a reason to object to coal – its radiation is trivial compared with what we get from natural sources.
Other energy sources have their special applications, but in the future, nuclear power will be the main workhorse. There’s just no other way for humanity to get enough of the clean and safe power it will need over the next few thousand years.
Gerald E. Marsh is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years. He is on the advisory board of The National Center for Public Policy Research.
George S. Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety.