There are good reasons to be in favor of nuclear power – for now. There are even better reasons to want to replace nuclear power by renewable energy – in the not too distant future, writes Allan Hoffman, former energy expert at the US Department of Energy. This is the second of two articles in which Hoffman, who runs the blog Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist, reflects on a sensitive energy topic. In his first article he weighed the pros and cons of fracking.
Photo: Eastern Bluebird on the security fence of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant (by Putneypics)
Nuclear power is a well-worn topic, but it continues to be highly contentious – and relevant to our energy situation. It is also a topic I find it hard to stay away from as it got me started on a career path in energy. This career ‘push’ was mentioned in ‘About this blog and me’ and in the preceding blog ‘Values and Energy Policy’. Nuclear power is also an important energy option for the future, although highly controversial. In this blog I will share my views on nuclear power and provide a few tidbits of personal history on my initial involvement with the subject.
As an engineering physics undergraduate at Cornell in the 1950′s I was exposed to the basics of nuclear fission (‘technologically sweet’) and witnessed the construction of the first nuclear reactor on the campus. Several distinguished members of the physics faculty were veterans of the Manhattan Project and civilian use of nuclear power was rapidly gaining public attention. At one point I even considered changing my major to nuclear engineering, but decided not to.
As mentioned in the ‘About’ section of my blog, I was reintroduced to the nuclear power issue in 1969. This led to an effort at self-education on the commercial use of nuclear fission and, within a short time, to interaction with members of the nuclear power industry. This included a meeting with the CEO of the holding company building the nuclear power plant Vermont Yankee in Vernon, Vermont, just 30 miles north of where I was teaching at UMass/Amherst. Just las week it was announced that this plant, which began commercial operations in 1972, will be closed at the end of 2014.
During its construction phase, before the loading of fuel, I was able to bring students on a tour of the plant and its reactor core, a rather unique experience. This was possible through a relationship I developed with the chief engineer at Vermont Yankee, whom I also invited to address my class (about 100 students during the initial phase of teaching science to non-science majors) on the pros of nuclear power.
We could think of no better way to get such a debate started than to get Nader and his folks involved, and I believe it worked.
His interaction with the students still resonates with me as an indication of the problems the nuclear power industry has had in the U.S. Incredibly, he started by stating that he was not sure why he was speaking to a class of non-technical people as nuclear power was a technology issue and was best left to the technology folks. He then presented a standard discussion in support of nuclear power and I opened the session to student questions. Having been prepared on some of the issues in previous classes, these non-technologists proceeded to tear him apart, an experience I’m sure he did not soon forget. His ‘arrogance’ was the problem, which may have been all too characteristic of the nuclear industry in its early days. Vermont Yankee even had its first fuel rods loaded upside down, resulting in Vermont’s Attorney General labeling the plant ‘a turkey’.
Other interactions with the ‘industry’ included public debates on nuclear power with a scientist from Brookhaven National Laboratory (who said ‘drinking coffee is more dangerous than nuclear power’), with a faculty member from the MIT Nuclear Engineering Department (who emphasized the low probability of a nuclear accident), and with a Vice President of Northeast Utilities on a Boston TV program ‘For Women Only’. I also presented a number of invited talks on nuclear power and even used this issue as my presentation to the selection committee for the APS Congressional Fellowship Program.
Other tidbits: in 1969-70 the Nixon Administration was pushing nuclear power and identified the salt beds in Lyons, Kansas as the repository for nuclear wastes – a contentious issue that was rearing its head. Unfortunately, after a too-hasty announcement, the Administration had to withdraw Lyons from consideration – the isolation of the salt beds had been compromised by numerous drillings for oil, and water had a clear path downward.
A rather interesting development came out of my frustration with the Science Editor at the New York Times, who received several letters from me about the need for a national debate on nuclear power. He didn’t acknowledge my letters, let alone publish them, so my ‘mentor’, David Inglis, and I decided to do something about getting that debate going. We invited the famous activist and author Ralph Nader and his PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) directors to Amherst for a weekend, during which we briefed them on the issues related to nuclear power. We could think of no better way to get such a debate started than to get Nader and his folks involved, and I believe it worked.
As for my views on nuclear power I have never been anti-nuclear but understand the concerns that many people have. Alvin Weinberg, former Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said it best in 1947 when he said that nuclear power is a ‘Faustian bargain’, defined by the Cultural Dictionary as follows: “Faust, in the legend, traded his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge. To “strike a Faustian bargain” is to be willing to sacrifice anything to satisfy a limitless desire for knowledge or power.”
If one rules out a meltdown coal-burning plants may put more radioactivity into the environment than occasional radioactive gaseous releases
As a committed renewable energy type I advocate moving as rapidly as possible to an energy system based on renewable energy, having devoted most of my professional career to helping make that possible. Nevertheless, there are realities about how fast that can come about and how to meet people’s needs for electricity while that transition takes place. Coal has been the dominant fuel in U.S. electricity generation for many years, but is losing its grip to natural gas. Both fossil fuels, when combusted, put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, natural gas less than coal, but an aspect of coal combustion that has received much too little attention is that burning coal puts small but steady amounts of radioactivity in the form of uranium and thorium into the atmosphere (see Coal Combustion – ORNL Review Vol. 26, No. 3&4, 1993). This 1993 article offers useful information on something that is not widely known and which the coal industry is not likely to tell you about.
As mentioned above, I have been distressed about how the nuclear industry has presented this technology to the public and been resistant to recognizing legitimate concerns associated with a nuclear economy. These include cost, safety, long-term waste storage, and weapons proliferation.
The cost issue is front and center with utilities, especially now that natural gas costs are low due to fracking. It is my belief that a safe (i.e., non-meltdown) nuclear reactor can be built today (e.g., HTGR’s), unlike the early PWR’s and BWR’s built at 3-Mile Island and Fukishima.
Care and maintenance are critical, and human error and trying to cut costs have a tendency to get in the way, as evidenced recently in California. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a nuclear plant accident is arguably small, and if one rules out a meltdown coal-burning plants may put more radioactivity into the environment than occasional radioactive gaseous releases. This comparison needs to be explored more fully in the public domain.
The weapons proliferation issue is the one that scares me the most
The waste issue is a tough one, but one that has to be solved as we started off the nuclear era with tens of millions of gallons of high-level waste from our weapons program in WWII. Civilian wastes are adding to this total in an increasing number of countries around the world, and the long term waste issue is being actively explored. I believe a solution will be found, probably in deep geologic storage, but at this point we don’t know enough to be confident.
Different fuel cycle
The weapons proliferation issue is the one that scares me the most, not just because of the growing knowledge of how to build a ‘nuclear device’ (i.e., a bomb), but the potential availability of radioactive wastes that can be incorporated into a ‘dirty bomb’. This latter possibility does not require great technical and manufacturing capabilities (it requires chemical explosive dispersal of radioactive materials) but can do immeasurable harm by creating uninhabitable radioactive zones.
When I raised this issue with a representative of the Nuclear Energy Institute his response was the U.S. can handle such wastes safely, which may be true. But when I asked him about the many other countries that were adding nuclear power plants he went silent, illustrating the problem. Many countries will not have the means, technical and financial, to control these wastes as well as we and a few other counties can, and the only answer I can come up with is internationalization of the waste disposal/recycling process.
Another approach for future nuclear plants is to use a different fuel cycle that produces and consumes its own high-level waste. Modular reactors are also being discussed (100-300MWe units, as opposed to today’s standard 1,000MWe units) which, in principle, can be mass produced, be less capital expensive, and sealed without refueling for years to decades. Regardless, there will still be a waste problem that has to be addressed.
I’ll end this blog with a recognition that nuclear power has many strong advocates, including those who point out that nuclear fission does not put carbon into the atmosphere and thus addresses global warming and climate change, and equally sincere and vocal opponents who fear the possible negative impacts of the Faustian bargain and believe that investments in nuclear power will crowd out investments in renewable energy, the basis of our future energy system. I assume the views expressed above will stimulate at least a few comments, and I look forward to the subsequent debate.
Allan Hoffman worked at the US Department of Energy (DOE) in Washington DC for many years in various top-level policy and management positions. He obtained his Ph.D in solid state (now condensed matter) physics at Brown University in 1967. Before that he worked as research intern/physicist at IBM, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Texas Instruments. He retired in 2012 and now runs his own blog, Thoughts of a Lapsed Physicist, in which he shares his perspectives on energy and related issues, based on his long years of experience in science and with the US government. This article was reprinted here from his blog with his permission.