Nuclear Power—An Opportunity Lost

By David L. Brown

As the world nears a dangerous period when supplies of oil and gas appear to be peaking, many nations are taking a new look at nuclear power. In his 2006 State of the Union Address, President Bush called for a renewal of nuclear power plant construction in the U.S. Other places, too, are thinking twice about the kneejerk reaction to halt nuclear development after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl events.

The sad truth is that at the very time nations banned construction of nuclear plants, new and safer designs were just becoming available. The problems arose with older models—the Chernobyl plants were particularly primitive. Three Mile Island did not result in any significant danger to the public and should have been viewed as evidence that nuclear power could be relatively safe. Atomic power technology was at the threshold of a new era of safer, more efficient plants that would have helped reduce both carbon emissions and the reliance on fossil fuels. If continued, a large proportion of the world’s electricity needs today could be coming from clean nuclear plants.

But fear and political expediency brought development to a halt in most places. A major force driving the decisions by national governments to stop nuclear power projects has been the pressure from so-called “Greens,” activists who seem to be against anything and everything that is required for the continuance of humanity and the world economy.
Some countries did not turn away from nuclear power, and surprisingly one of those in the forefront of renewed develoopment of nuclear power is Ukraine, home of Chernobyl. Even there, Greens are providing the primary stumbling block but their efforts are not succeeding in holding back planned re-nuclearization. Here is the lede from an article on developments in Ukraine from Germany’s Spiegel Online (English Site):

The Chernobyl disaster rattled the trust of Ukrainians in atomic power. But after a natural-gas showdown with Russia last winter, the nation is flirting with going nuclear again. Kiev wants to build 14 new reactors.

A Wednesday protest against nuclear power by Ukrainian green party activists in Kiev.
A Wednesday protest against nuclear power by Ukrainian green party activists in Kiev

The explosion of reactor no. 4 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in the early morning of April 26, 1986, is still the biggest civilian nuclear catastrophe the world has ever seen. Huge swaths of Europe were blanketed with radiation; helpless officials at the disaster site sent an unknown number of emergency personnel to their deaths. The calamity was a shock for the entire world — Ukrainians especially. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, both the populace and the parliament of the newly independent Ukraine leaned against continuing with nuclear power and at the start of the 1990s, the parliament passed a moratorium on it, and no further reactors were to be built.But the memory of Chernobyl faded, as did awareness of the dangers and popular fear. Two new-model reactor blocks in Chmelnitzki and Rowno — about 80-percent complete in the ’90s — were recently finished despite the moratorium, and fired up two years ago. Old scruples vanished. A small, politically-insignificant group of Greens called for a nuclear phase-out this year before parliamentary elections in March — with no success. In the meantime, four still-active plants with 15 reactor blocks supply about half of Ukraine’s domestically-produced electricity. Read the rest.

Green activists who oppose nuclear power must be torn between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, because the main alternatives to nuclear power are pollution and CO2 producing fossil fuel plants. Even sustainable and clean energy projects such as wind power are all too often opposed by environmental activists on the grounds that they might harm wildlife, or merely because they are unsightly. In fact, it is a tragedy that the world has let a quarter century pass by with little effort toward developing sustainable nuclear power. Since the 1970s we have been able to build safe, clean, breeder reactors that produce their own fuel, the perfect answer to our planet’s energy needs.

One has to question the motivation of Greens, since if they were to get their way in every regard there would be few places left on Earth for human existence to continue. No trees would be cut, no minerals would be mined, vast areas would be declared wilderness and cut off from the world. Their confusion is particularly apparent on the issue of nuclear power, which as noted above is now safe and sustainable. Ironically, atomic power it is the ultimate “green” power source, even taking into consideration the over-emphasized “problem” of waste disposal—another issue primarily raised by green activists. Storing nuclear waste safely until recycling technologies can be developed to handle them is a relatively minor challenge.

But on a more practical level, nuclear power is far from being a quick solution to the looming world energy crisis. That is because atomic plants cannot be built quickly. In England, for example, where existing plants are due to shut down in a few years, the government estimates that it will be the year 2019 before any new plants could be on-line. That is assuming that planning starts immediately and that the projects go forward without a hitch. Considering the srong likelihood of active resistance by Greens and the general attitudes of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), that is extremely unlikely. A more realistic timeline in my opinion would put the new plants at least 15-20 years in the future.

Two decades is a very long time in our present world, which is rushing toward the precipice of an Oil Peak, and in which natural gas is becoming a tool of international blackmail. Any solution to our energy needs must come much more quickly than that. As we have said before, nuclear energy is not a panacea and will prove to be too little, too late. It is an opportunity lost.

Which raises the question: What can be done to face up to the impending world energy crisis? Conservation is one obvious and immediate step that could be taken. Rapid development and deployment of small scale alternatives such as local solar and wind power projects are other possibilities. Enactment of regulations to reward buyers of economical vehicles, efficient heating and cooling systems, and other major energy efficient products could be effective. All of the many opportunities are dependant upon decisive changes in governmental attitudes.

Subsidized cheap gasoline as we have enjoyed in the U.S. for a century has led us down the path upon which we now find ourselves, with gas guzzling SUVs the norm, not the exception. The nations of Europe, Japan and other advanced countries, have long maintained a high price for fuel by taxing the commodity, resulting in vehicle fleets that are lean and mean. For two years this writer kept a British-made motorhome in Europe. With a three liter diesel engine, it was a marvel of efficiency and economy and a pleasure to drive. No such vehicles are made in the U.S.

It is easy to see why American gasoline prices have remained artificially low. Until a few decades ago we were the world’s largest oil producer, not needing to rely on imports. That was not the case in Europe and Japan, which were reliant on imports from the very start, so it made sense for them to develop ways to encourage conservation.

But the situation changed when American oil production peaked around 30 years ago. At that time, we should have reacted to the changing situation by beginning to move toward a more reasoned approach to gasoline prices. It would not have had to be sudden or cause an economic shock. Raising the gasoline tax by ten cents a year would have slowly raised the price, encouraging the manufacture and purchase of efficient vehicles. After 30 years, that would have added $3 to the price of gas, and our national fleet would be quite different, more in line with those of Europe and Japan. Sadly, such a reasonable step was not politically popular, and successive administrations and congresses have continued to duck the question.

Now that the threat of an energy crisis is literally looming over the world like a cresting tsunami wave, Washington continues to waffle and delay. President Bush talks of building new nuclear plants, and yet the time to have done that was 25 years ago. He talks of using switchgrass to replace oil, a canard if there ever was one. Talk such as this will contribute little to solving the problem, which is serious and immediate. No long term or pie-in-the-sky ideas will cut it. We need to launch an all-out national effort to increase our domestic supplies of oil in the short term, create incentives for conservation, and begin to develop clean, sustainable alternative energy as rapidly as possible.

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