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Why environmentalists should promote nuclear energy.

It may be the only viable energy option that can prevent economic stagnation, energy conflicts, and environmental degradation.

Third World population growth and economic development are setting the stage for an energy crisis in the next century. By mid-century the Third World population will double from 4 billion to 8 billion people, while the population of the industrial world will grow by about 20 percent to 1.2 billion. Impoverished Third World people today use less than one-tenth as much energy per capita as do U.S. citizens. Unless we expect to see the majority of the world's people living indefinitely in dire poverty, we should be prepared for per capita energy use to rise rapidly with economic progress. Even if Third World per capita energy use rises to only one-third of the U.S. level, that increase in combination with expected population growth will result in a threefold increase in world energy use by 2050.

If fossil fuels are used to supply this increased energy need, we can expect serious deterioration of air quality and possible environmental disaster from global climate change due to the greenhouse effect. In addition, increased demand for fossil fuels combined with dwindling supplies will lead to higher prices, slowed economic growth, and the likelihood of energy-related global conflicts. Does anyone doubt that Kuwait's oil resources were a major factor in U.S. willingness to take military action against Iraq? Increased competition for fossil fuels will only exacerbate tensions.

Alternatives to this scenario are few. Perhaps future world energy use can be stabilized at a level much less than a third of present U.S. per capita use. (Of course, the demand could be much higher.) Perhaps solar or wind power will become practical on a large scale. Perhaps fusion, or even cold fusion, will be developed. Perhaps some new, clean, plentiful energy source will emerge. We can all hope for an easy answer to our energy needs, but it is irresponsible to base our future on such hopes.

But if we limit our planning to proven and reliable energy technologies with adequate fuel supplies and low environmental risks that we know can meet the world's energy needs in the 21st century, we must focus on nuclear power. However, even conventional nuclear power plants will face fuel supply problems in the next century if their use expands significantly. Fortunately, we also have experience with nuclear breeder reactors, such as the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor (ALMR), that can produce more than a hundred times as much energy per pound of uranium as do conventional reactors.

The United States has been a leader in the development of nuclear power technology and the adoption of stringent safety standards. Not a single member of the public has been harmed by the operation of any of the world's nuclear plants that meet U.S. standards. (The Chernobyl reactor, which lacked a containment structure, did not meet U.S. standards.) The United States has also been successful in using its peaceful nuclear power leadership to limit the worldwide spread of nuclear weapons.

But the future of nuclear energy in the United States is now in question. Since 1973, all new nuclear energy plant orders have subsequently been canceled. In 1993, U.S. utilities shut down three nuclear energy plants rather than invest in needed repairs. Of the 110 presently operating U.S. nuclear energy plants, 45 will reach the end of their planned 40-year life-time in the next two decades, and there are no plans for replacing them with new nuclear energy plants. Indeed, the utility industry seems to have no interest in even thinking about building new nuclear power plants. Not a single U.S. utility responded to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) request to test a proposed new procedure for early approval of a new nuclear energy plant site even though no commitment for actual site use was required. And the Clinton administration has canceled support for advanced nuclear energy development programs, including the ALMR program.

This is the wrong time for the nation or the world to ignore nuclear power. Demand for energy will grow, and our options are limited. Ironically, environmentalists, who have opposed nuclear power since the 1970s, should have the strongest rationale for promoting nuclear energy. Like almost all large endeavors, nuclear power has its problems and its risks. But the problems of nuclear power do not look so bad when compared with the air pollution, global warming, and the supply limitations associated with fossil fuels. Besides, the major drawbacks of nuclear power - from cost to waste disposal - are due more to institutional impediments than to technological difficulties. Considering the growth in energy demand and the risks associated with other energy sources, the benefit-risk ratio for nuclear power is very attractive. Indeed, the welfare of our future generations and the environment may depend on maintaining the viability of nuclear power.

A long and winding road

Peaceful nuclear power began in 1954 with President Eisenhower's "Atoms For Peace" program. A major goal was to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons by trading peaceful nuclear power knowledge and technology for agreements to refrain from nuclear weapons development. During this period it was estimated that some 20 nations had initiated nuclear programs, and President Eisenhower's concern was that the "knowledge possessed by several nations will eventually be shared by others - possibly all others." In view of the lack of weapons use and the small number of nations with nuclear weapons today, one can characterize the Atoms for Peace program as a major success. Of course, our experience with Iraq, North Korea, and South Africa makes it clear that diligence must be maintained.

Peaceful nuclear power development started slowly in the late 1950s with initial demonstration plants, but by the mid- to late-1960s commercial nuclear power plant orders began to take off, and by the early 1970s some 30 to 40 nuclear energy plants were being ordered each year. It was projected that the United States would have more than a thousand nuclear energy plants in operation by the end of the century.

This bullish outlook resulted from several factors. The first was that electricity use was growing at the rate of about 7 percent per year, leading to a need for a doubling of electrical capacity every 10 years. At the same time, there was a growing awareness among utility executives of the pollution effects of fossil-fuel burning. Responding to the very negative public reactions to his company's announcement that it would be starting up a new coal-fired plant in 1961, McChesney Martin, chairman of Florida Power and Light (FP&L), promised never to build another coal plant. Shortly thereafter, FP&L committed to build the Turkey Point Nuclear Station. In the mid-1960s, the Sierra Club became a major supporter of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant in California.

This period of rapid nuclear expansion and environmentalist support of nuclear power ended in 1973 after the Arab oil boycott. As a result of the boycott, the cost of oil went from $2 to $12 a barrel. This drove up the price of electricity, which led to economic disruption and a dramatic slowdown in the growth of demand for electricity. The rate of growth fell to 2 percent a year, a doubling of use every 35 years. Because of the prior ordering to meet the anticipated 10-year doubling time, there has been until very recently a surplus of electric-generation capacity. This surplus was maintained despite the post-1973 cancellations of 108 nuclear and 93 fossil-fuel plants that were on order.

This surplus has distorted the nation's perspective on energy in general and nuclear energy in particular. During this period of surplus, one could find fault with virtually all energy sources; coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectricity, and nuclear power could all be judged unacceptable because there was no need for new plants. A number of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club insisted that the nation should hold out for ideal or risk-free sources such as energy conservation, solar power, and wind energy. It didn't matter if interminable delays were imposed on the construction of new power plants because there was no pressing need for the electricity. No one suffered from a shortage of electricity as the construction time for a nuclear power plant expanded from 4-to-6 years to 10-to-15 years or even longer.

These extended construction times have been ascribed to an ever more complicated and inefficient regulatory licensing system and to court delays resulting from suits brought by those opposed to nuclear power. Although these did indeed contribute to the delays, in my view the underlying cause was lack of need. In Japan and France, for example, where demand for electricity continued to grow rapidly, new nuclear energy plants of U.S. design are still being licensed and built in four to six years. I question whether NRC or the courts (or for that matter Congress) would have tolerated the delays if new electricity was truly needed. One real result of the delays, however, was that the cost of building a nuclear plant in the United States increased dramatically, making nuclear power uncompetitive and unattractive to investors.

Nuclear benefits

Although the rate of growth of electricity use declined after 1973, demand did increase as the economy expanded. U.S. electricity use increased 70 percent between 1973 and 1994, while the gross domestic product grew by 63 percent. The new demand was met primarily by new plants, predominantly coal and nuclear, that were ordered before 1973 and constructed in the two decades following. Coal generation doubled between 1973 and 1994, and today provides over 50 percent of U.S. electricity. The 74 nuclear energy plants that came on line in this period increased nuclear's share of electricity generation from 4 percent in 1973 to more than 20 percent today, second only to coal. The other sources are natural gas (14 percent); hydropower (9 percent); wood, wind, and solar (3 percent); and oil (3 percent). The added nuclear capacity allowed for the shutdown of oil-fired plants, permitting the utilities to reduce oil imports by some 100 million barrels per year and thus lower the trade deficit by over a billion dollars per year. The substitution of nuclear for fossil-fueled plants has reduced present C[O.sup.2] atmospheric emissions by more than 130 million metric tons of carbon per year, roughly 10 per cent of total U.S. C[O.sup.2] production. Nevertheless, the United States still needs to reduce carbon production by an additional 10 percent to reach its goal of returning to the 1990 production level. In addition, replacement of fossil-fuel plants with nuclear power has reduced nitrogen oxide emissions to the air by over 2 million tons annually, meeting the goal set by the Clean Air Act for the year 2000, and has reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by almost 5 million tons per year, half the goal for the year 2000. Both nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide are harmful to human health and the environment.

U.S. nuclear power plants themselves have an admirable environmental and public health record. Safety has been a critical consideration in plant design from the beginning. Standard operation of a nuclear plant produces no ill effects, and even in the case of a major malfunction or accident, the use of a containment structure that surrounds the plant prevents the release of significant amounts of radioactive material. The wisdom of the U.S. approach is evident in a comparison of the accidents at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania and the Soviet Union's Chernobyl reactor. Thanks to the containment structure, not a single member of the public was injured by nuclear radiation from the Three Mile Island accident. In fact, a person standing outside the plant would have received less radiation exposure from it than from a two-week vacation in high-altitude Denver with its uranium-rich soil. Significant harm to humans resulted from the accident at the Chernobyl plant, which lacked a containment structure.

One commonly cited drawback of nuclear power is that it creates radioactive waste that must be contained for thousands of years. Nuclear waste is a serious concern, but one that can be successfully managed and is less worrisome than the emissions from fossil-fuel plants. Coal, gas, wood, and oil plants emit greenhouse gases and other undesirable materials to the environment. No nuclear wastes are directly emitted to the environment. Of course, radioactive waste can represent a serious hazard if it is not properly maintained, but its small volume allows very high expenditures and great care per unit volume. If all the country's high-level nuclear waste from over three decades of plant operations were collected on a football field, it would be only 9 feet deep. Nuclear power plant wastes have been carefully maintained at the plants for decades without harm to the environment or the public. Because high-level waste, composed largely of spent nuclear fuel, remains radioactive for thousands of years, the plan is to seal this waste in sturdy containers and bury it in underground geological structures that have remained stable for millions of years. The feasibility of this approach has been supported by a large number of national and international studies.

After the Department of Energy considered a number of possible storage sites for the waste and made its recommendations, Congress selected Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which is adjacent to a nuclear weapons testing site, as the place for the first high-level waste repository. Extensive underground exploration of the site and evaluation of its geology is now under way. If this research finds that the site is suitable, the repository will begin operation in the period from 2010 to 2020. In the meantime, the used fuel can be safely stored indefinitely in above-ground facilities.

Progress toward permanent storage of low-level waste from nuclear energy plants, medical procedures, and industrial processes, which is less radioactive and loses its radioactivity within a few hundred years, has also been slow. In 1987, Congress passed a law giving responsibility for management of the low-level wastes to the states. What has happened since then in California is an example of the institutional barriers impeding nuclear power development.

After extensive study, California chose a site in Ward Valley in the Mojave desert. The California Department of Health Services spent several years reviewing the site and the design of the repository, with ample opportunities for public input. In 1993, it approved the site and design. Unfortunately, the site is on federal land, which must be transferred to the state before it can be used for the repository. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt insisted on an independent review by the National Research Council before making the transfer. This year-long study concluded in May 1995 that the site was suitable for the repository. Similar conclusions were also reached by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey. Nevertheless, because of pressure from antinuclear organizations, the site has still not been transferred, and it is not clear how long the delay will be. In the meantime, the low-level wastes, including medical and industrial wastes, are being held at many temporary storage sites in the state. These sites could raise safety problems that would easily be avoided by opening the Ward Valley Repository.

There is no guarantee of absolute safety with nuclear wastes or with any potentially hazardous substance. Numerous expert studies have found that Yucca Mountain and Ward Valley provide the safety needed by the public. But as long as our institutional processes make it easy to stop the development of repositories on the basis of insubstantial doubts about safety, we will not be able to move from temporary storage to a safer, permanent solution. We are moving in the right direction, but the pace is unnecessarily slow. And while antinuclear activists continue to quibble about the possibility of some future hazard, we continue to pollute the air with fossil fuel emissions that cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year in the United States and produce greenhouse gases that could lead to global climate change with potentially disastrous consequences. Are some environmental Neros fiddling while Rome burns?

And if high-level radioactive waste is such a serious problem, doesn't it make sense to revive developmental support for the ALMR reactor, which "burns" or transmutes the long-lived radioactive materials, so that after a few hundred years the wastes become less hazardous than the natural uranium in the ground.

Reviving nuclear power

As the damaging effects of fossil fuels become more apparent and the need for additional electric generating capacity increases, the time for dismissing nuclear power is coming to an end. The current generation of U.S. nuclear power plants has performed well, and an even better generation of new designs is ready. General Electric, in partnership with Hitachi and Toshiba, has developed the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), which incorporates lessons learned from earlier designs. Construction of the first ABWR began in Japan in 1991, and the plant is already operating at full power. The ability to build and begin operation of a new design in less than five years is a testament to the quality of construction and the regulatory system in Japan. Combustion Engineering, which has been building its System 80 nuclear plants in South Korea in less than six years, is ready to move forward with its improved System 80+. Both of these new designs have already gone through more than six years of evaluation by NRC, receiving favorable reviews and approvals.

In addition to these evolutionary new designs, several companies have been working on passively safe designs, which it is hoped will provide even greater protection in the event of an accident. Westinghouse's AP600 and the technology of General Electric's Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (SBWR) are moving forward, but neither design is ready for commercial construction. Although there are people who argue that we should wait for such designs to be ready before building any new nuclear plants in the United States, currently available designs do not pose a safety problem and are safer than the alternative of increased fossil fuel use. Thus, there is no practical reason to wait for a new design that is theoretically safer but has its own development problems.

Reviews of the new commercially available designs indicate that they will have favorable safety, operating, and economic characteristics compared to fossil plants if (and this is a big if) they can be built as efficiently here as they are in other countries. But experience with the U.S. licensing and court review procedures suggests that it can take two to four times as long to construct a nuclear plant in the United States as it does abroad, with exorbitant increases in cost.

One reason for the long construction times is that in the past each U.S. plant had to go through the full review process, even if it was a replica of a previously built plant. In addition, much of the review took place during construction. Aware of this problem, the NRC, the nuclear industry, and Congress have developed a new "standardized" licensing procedure intended to eliminate the delays. Under this procedure, the NRC reviews the design and construction procedures in detail and evaluates critical comments from those opposed to the plant design or construction before construction is allowed to start. If a standardized license is granted, multiple plants of the same design can be built with the only licensing requirement being to demonstrate that the construction was performed in accordance with the license.

The problem is that this new licensing system has not yet been demonstrated to work as intended. Can it withstand the efforts of opponents of nuclear power who will use the legal system in any way that they can to stop or slow construction of a new nuclear power plant? Who can predict the timing of court rulings and appeals? Despite the fact that the new licensing procedure is intended to let construction continue during the court proceedings, what company would risk proceeding with a multibillion-dollar project with so little certainty about if and when it will be completed?

The private sector will not proceed with a new nuclear project without evidence that the new licensing system works. This is likely to require that a demonstration project or two be initiated whose licensing risks are underwritten by the government and/or shared by a number of power utilities. The U.S. government, for example, might agree to underwrite the added costs of the first demonstration plants if they encounter delays that the new licensing system is intended to eliminate. Similarly, utilities who feel a responsibility to provide for their customers' future might enter into a joint demonstration project and share the risks and (hopefully) the benefits.

Japan, Korea, and France have demonstrated that nuclear power plants that meet U.S. standards can be built economically in four to six years. Thus our problem is clearly not technical but institutional: Can we build U.S.-designed plants as efficiently in the United States as we do abroad? Our government should eliminate bureaucratic impediments that serve only as tools for those philosophically opposed to nuclear power.

Long-term needs

The world must be prepared for the increasing energy needs in the next century and beyond. The U.S.-led ALMR program was intended to develop a safe, economical, proliferation-resistant, essentially unlimited energy supply for the future. The program was proceeding well, with reactor design and fuel cycle development making substantial progress. As we have learned from past experience with light water reactors, it takes decades to uncover and solve the long-term problems of a new nuclear system. Thus, to be ready for the energy needs projected in next century, the ALMR development program should be vigorously pursued now. Private companies cannot take on such an expensive and slow-maturing project. Government must fund the project at this stage.

Unfortunately, the program has been canceled because of concern that the use of plutonium could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Although it is true that the use of breeder reactors in the United States would result in the creation of more plutonium, a U.S. decision to forego breeder reactors will not affect other countries that see the need for breeders in the future and continue to develop and operate them. The major effect of our abandonment of the ALMR program will be loss of U.S. leadership and influence in its future development as well as the loss of our leadership in assuring a proliferation-resistant fuel cycle.. Besides, the failure to provide adequate and affordable electricity for future economic needs is a much more serious threat to world peace. Indeed, competition and potential hostilities over scarce energy supplies increase the threat that nuclear weapons will be acquired - and used.

None of these policy changes will be made without a change in the public's attitude toward nuclear power. People need to understand the need for additional future energy supplies; the problems of fossil fuels; and the relative safety, reliability, and environmental advantages of nuclear power. The nuclear industry has done a poor job of educating the public about nuclear energy. And because of its perceived economic stake, the nuclear industry may not be a credible carrier for this message. More disinterested voices, particularly those in the environmental community, should be heard. The Club of Rome, an international organization with a particular interest in preserving the environment, has evolved from nuclear critic to nuclear promoter because of its concern about global climate change. U.S. environmentalists need to take a fresh look at world and national energy needs, the clear and worsening problems of fossil fuels, and the empirical evidence about the safety of nuclear power.

Recommended reading

World Energy Council, Energy for Tomorrow's World. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

The World Bank, World Development Report. 1994 New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Bernard L. Cohen, The Nuclear Energy Option. New York: Plenum Press, 1990.

Bertram Wolfe, a consultant based in Monte Sereno, California, is the former vice president and general manager of General Electric's nuclear energy division and a former president of the American Nuclear Society.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Academy of Sciences
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Author:Wolfe, Bertram David
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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