Ever since the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, no new nuclear plants have been licensed by the United States. However, it is now recognized that the safety measures at this plant worked, so that only a very small amount of radiation was released into the atmosphere, and this had no apparent harmful effects on health. The excellent safety record at American nuclear plants, growing imports of oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels at high prices, and increased concern over the pollution and global warming caused by fossil fuels, has convinced me that the case for licensing new American nuclear power plants is compelling.
Even though no American nuclear plants have been started for 25 years, old plants have raised their output much closer to their capacity. As a result, nuclear power currently supplies about 20 per cent of all the electricity generated in the United States. Yet this pales beside the situation in France, where nuclear power supplies more than 70 per cent of their electricity.
As operating and construction costs of nuclear power plants have come down greatly since 1980, these plants have become competitive in costs with plants fueled by oil or natural gas, even at prices for these fuels of five years ago. If their presently high prices continue, nuclear power would be cheaper even than coal-fired power plants.
In addition, several countries are building nuclear plants with new technologies, such as pebble-bed reactors that use helium rather than water to cool nuclear fuels. They appear to be much cheaper, and safer. In any case, the market place, along with due allowance for pollution effects and safety concerns, should be allowed to determine whether nuclear power is competitive with other methods of generating electricity.
In fact, many countries have already decided in favor of nuclear power. China plans to add 20 or so new nuclear plants during the next 15 years, as it tries to curb its imports of oil and natural gas, and its use of coal. India, Japan, and South Africa are two of many other nations that are moving toward greater reliance on nuclear power.
Nuclear power has several other advantages over plants powered by fossil fuels. Uranium is abundant, easily transported, and efficient in producing energy. One kilogram of natural uranium will yield about 20,000 times as much energy as the same quantity of coal. Nuclear plants would reduce American dependence on imports of natural gas and oil. To the extent there is concern about running out of fossil fuels- a concern that I believe is greatly exaggerated- nuclear generation of electricity becomes even more attractive.
Whereas coal, oil, and even natural gas power plants emit substantial quantities of CO2, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants per megawatt of electricity generated, nuclear power plants release negligible levels of harmful pollutants. Growing concern about pollution helps propel the expanding interest in nuclear power. The advantage of nuclear power has become more concrete as a result of the Kyoto Agreement that requires signatories to cut back substantially on their emissions of CO2. The EU and Japan are already enforcing such cutbacks, and the United States is under continual pressure also to reduce CO2 emissions, even though it did not sign this Agreement.
The case against nuclear power plants is mainly based on three considerations. Fear of a serious nuclear accident, even worse than at Chernobyl, the risks in disposing and storing radioactive nuclear waste, and terrorist attacks on nuclear plants that might release large amounts of radioactive materials.
The chances of a serious accident at an American-approved nuclear plant is extremely low, given modern safety methods that are much better than even those at Three Mile Island, and new types of reactors that are safer still. The safety record is outstanding: there have been a few accidents at nuclear plants, but none have been yet implicated in many deaths or injuries in the United States, or in France, Japan, Scandinavia, and other developed nations that rely more extensively than America does on nuclear power to generate electricity. I am much more worried about safety at nuclear power plants in less developed and non-democratic nations.
The second issue is the disposal of used fuel or waste from reactors since that waste is extremely radioactive. The options are either storage or reuse. The United States relies entirely on storage, and imposes a tax on nuclear power producers to pay for the storage of nuclear waste. The Department of Energy has concluded that a facility could be built in the Yucca Mountains of Nevada that would be both safe and large enough to house an immense quantity of nuclear waste. Politics, not safety, is holding up the construction of this and equally safe alternatives.
France and some other nations recycle and reuse nuclear waste, so they do not have important waste storage problems. Given the general emphasis on recycling other wastes, it is surprising that America forbids recycling of nuclear waste. The answer seems to be that the United States has shied away from recycling because it produces plutonium, the ingredient for nuclear bombs. That seems less important now with the proliferation of nations with nuclear weapons.
The newest concern about nuclear power plants stems from the sharp growth in terrorist attacks, especially the 9/11 attack. This is an important development, but it is being met partly through greatly beefed-up security at American plants with additional guards, traffic barriers, and other security protections. Some studies indicate that the enormous safety protections within American nuclear plants makes it very unlikely that bombs set off near these plants, airplanes crashing into them, or other terrorist activities would cause significant radiation leaks. Terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants that would release sizeable amounts of radiation are much more likely in less developed and less democratic nations that have looser safety standards than at American plants.
The risk of a serious radiation leak from one of these sources is not zero, but such risks have to be balanced against geopolitical concerns and risks to the environment from relying on fossil fuels to generate electricity. My weighing of these considerations leads me to conclude that the time has come for America to follow the example set by Europe, Japan, China, and increasing numbers of other nations, and remove its ban on building additional nuclear power plants.