U.S. Should Pursue Nuclear Energy in Fukushima's Wake
By Henry Weaver '13
We have arrived at a crucial moment for the future of nuclear energy in the United States. The ongoing difficulties at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan lend credibility to critics. A recent Rasmussen poll shows climbing public opposition to nuclear power. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to authorize the construction of a new plant this century. For all the buzz about advancing renewable energy technologies, we seem reluctant to invest in the only emissions-free technology with the proven potential to supply mass quantities of power.

The Department of Energy predicts that the United States will consume 24 percent more electricity by 2035. How will we meet this demand? The further extraction and burning of coal will only worsen the harm done to our people and our planet. Hydroelectric power imposes unacceptable costs on our landscapes, and most of our capacity has already been exhausted. Wind, solar, geothermal and the like may never prove reliable sources of large quantities of electricity.

Nuclear power currently provides about a fifth of the United States’ electricity consumption, so its economic feasibility is readily apparent. But what about the waste? If we make a sustained commitment to researching spent fuel reprocessing, there is little doubt that we could drastically reduce the quantity of permanent waste produced. Nevertheless, some radioactive waste is inevitable. As nuclear power grows in importance, pressure will build to find a long-term solution such as the proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. In the meantime, on-site storage is an adequate stopgap.

Nuclear power is also, bar none, the safest source of electricity. One can compare different sources objectively with the macabre statistic of “deaths per terawatt-hour.” Coal leads the field at a death rate of 161. Oil gets a distant second at 36. Solar and wind have almost negligible death rates, 0.44 and 0.15 respectively, mainly from construction accidents. Nuclear power boasts an incredible 0.04. Even including the disaster at Chernobyl and the scare at Three-Mile Island, nuclear power proves safer than not only fossil fuels but also the newest clean technologies.

More than any other country, France has succeeded in creating an effective nuclear power infrastructure. It gets almost 80 percent of its electricity from about 60 reactors. Its success is due in large part to an efficient, well-planned partnership between the government and the private sector. Plant designs are standardized, whereas no two American plants are exactly alike. The main company, Areva, has achieved double-digit increases in efficiency and decreases in capital costs from this model. In close consultation with Areva, French regulators have encouraged new development without sacrificing safety. In contrast, here in America, the regulatory mess makes it almost impossible to obtain new permits.

So the largest obstacle to a new age of clean and safe nuclear power is neither economic nor technological, but political. The threat of nuclear disaster captures the public imagination in ways that the deaths of 2,442 Chinese coal miners last year does not. We must not allow irrational fear to govern public policy. We can slow climate change. We can lower child asthma rates. We can reduce our dependence on Arab tyrants. The answer is nuclear energy.

Issue 19, Submitted 2011-03-23 01:20:47