Yale University

Sound Off !

We Must Have More Nuclear Power

Robert Whitby

August 19, 2013

Category: Society > Government and Politics

The US should dramatically increase its commitment to nuclear power plants.  At least one new plant a year should be commissioned for the next twenty years, and a goal of being 50% nuclear by 2050 should be set.

Since 1945, nuclear research had moved beyond making bombs, and by the 1950's was being focused more on naval propulsion and making electricity.  Starting in 1956, the first construction of reliable nuclear power plants had begun. In 1957, I visited the Argonne National Laboratory where I was given a vision of a nation, and then a world, to be powered primarily by nuclear energy plants.  As the years went by, I heard of the construction of one, then another, and another nuclear power plant. In the 1980's, 218 nuclear plants were started up around the world, an average of one every 17 days. These included 47 in the US, 42 in France and 18 in Japan.

By 2110, US and foreign utilities had commissioned some 430 nuclear plants, and they all worked.  The US and the Soviets deployed nuclear powered naval fleets, (submarine and surface) — some 150 ships in total. In the late 1970's I lived in France where some 75% of its power is generated by nuclear power.

Then, alas, Three Mile Island in 1978; Jane Fonda and "The China Syndrome" in 1979; the gadfly Ross Perot saying the last new nuclear plant in the US had been built; and the "no-nukes-in-my-backyard" people were everywhere.   Yes, and then came Chernobyl and Fukushima.  Germany decided to decommission its nuclear plants. Bye-bye nuclear vision??  Run everybody.  Run, run, run!

Well, not so fast... The West's electricity consumption still increases every year and the developing world's need for electric energy accelerates even more dramatically, especially with the industrialization of India, China, and Latin America. A total world electricity demand growth of some 50% over current usage is forecast by 2030.

Meeting these huge future demands with Big Coal, which currently fuels more that 40% of world electricity generation capacity, will suffocate us with CO2 emissions. Oil-fired plants also emit CO2, and continue our dependency on foreign oil. Wind and solar together today meet less that 4% of electricity generation needs; even if doubled or tripled or quadrupled, wind and solar — and the tooth fairy — cannot begin to meet the vast energy requirements of the coming decades.

Like it or not, nuclear power is the only viable answer to the world's longer-term, macro-energy needs. About 160 next-generation power reactors are planned world-wide over the next decade, and over 320 more reactors are proposed. Sixty reactors are currently under construction.

  • The US currently has 104 old technology nuclear reactors generating about 20% of our electricity needs.  There are plans for 13 new reactors, but only two licenses have been granted so far.  Few of the 13 planned new US reactors will be on stream by 2020.  (Not near enough.)

  • Russia currently has 11 nuclear reactors of the Chernobyl type.  By 2017, 10 next generation reactors now under construction will be operating, increasing capacity by 50% in 2020.

  • China has 15 operating reactors with 26 new reactors under construction.

  • India has 20 operating reactors with 7 new reactors under construction.

I'd like to see US energy policy take a major shift away from coal and other fossil fuels in favor of nuclear. A dramatically stepped-up investment program into the next generation of nuclear power plants is called for, aggressive enough to make us 50% nuclear by 2050. That will create a few jobs! Nuclear reactors are now cleaner than coal-fired plants, more efficient than wind farms, and safer than solar panels — and those incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima would never happen with the next generation of super-safe, low-waste reactors.

With breeder-reactor technology, little or no new uranium will have to be mined to fuel reactors; spent fuel and even nuclear weapons can be regenerated into reusable fuel. Breeder-reactor scientists say we already have enough mined uranium to fuel the US for 1000 years. Waste storage can potentially be reduced to 1/8 of current requirements as spent fuel is reprocessed.

Go see the film Pandora's Promise, directed by Robert Stone. I saw it at the 2013 Telluride Mountain Film Festival.  Note: The Telluride audience is largely wacked-out tree-hugging conservation fanatics who hate all dams, oil wells, coal, pipelines,  gas fracking, nuclear, and anything else that will light a darkened room.  During the screening there was, even in Telluride, an hour of hush, while the future possibilities of nuclear energy were thoughtfully reconsidered.