Guest column11/20/08

Nuclear power for America

Nov. 20, 2008
By Roy Innis

Congress, the White House and President-elect Obama are working hard to resuscitate our economy. But even as they do so, many politicians, judges, bureaucrats and activists are blocking energy development, including the nuclear power that provides one-fifth of America’s electricity needs.

Abundant, reliable, affordable energy makes jobs, health, living standards and civil rights possible. It means fewer people have to choose between heating, eating, paying the rent or mortgage, giving to charity, or covering health care, college and retirement costs. Here are some essential facts:

➢    Reliability – Nuclear plants generate electricity 90 percent of every year, shutting down only occasionally for maintenance, repairs and changing fuel rods. They emit no greenhouse gases.

Wind turbines can be relied on just 30 percent of the time, on average — and often just 10 percent of the time during hot summer days, when air conditioners are on high, but there’s barely a breeze.

➢     Operational safety – Three Mile Island was the “worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.” But it injured no one and exposed neighboring residents to the radioactive equivalent of getting a CT scan. It led to major improvements in nuclear plant management, operation and training.

➢     Storage of used nuclear fuel – The Energy Department spent 25 years and $10 billion studying the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, before concluding that it will meet all safety standards. In fact, the largest expected annual radiation dose for someone living near this geologically stable site would be less than 1 millirem — compared to 1,000 millirems from an abdominal CT scan.

America’s 104 nuclear plants generate enough electricity for nearly 75 million homes — and produce about 2,000 tons of “spent” reactor fuel annually. So Yucca will be able to hold all the used fuel from the past 50 years, plus another 35 years of used fuel, without expanding on the original design.

Spent fuel and other wastes (high-level defense wastes, plus low-level wastes like protective clothing) are solid materials. There is no liquid that can leak into rocks or groundwater. Water in reactors is treated and reused.

➢    Transportation safety – Shipping containers are constructed from layers of steel and lead, nearly a foot thick, and carried on trucks or rail cars. They’ve been slammed into concrete walls at 85 mph, dropped 30 feet, burned 30 minutes in 1,475-degree fires and submerged in water for hours. They’ve never broken or leaked.

Over 3,000 shipments of spent fuel have traversed 1.7 million miles, with no injuries, deaths or environmental damage. The only significant accident involved a semi-truck that overturned while avoiding a collision, sending the trailer and attached container into a ditch. No harmful releases of radioactivity ever occurred.

That hasn’t stopped imaginative writers from saying “catastrophic” accidents “could” put “millions” of Americans “at risk” of exposure to “deadly radiation” or even death. They’ve been watching too many Hollywood movies, where every car accident becomes a raging inferno.

➢    Theft and terrorism – The notion that spent (or even fresh) power plant fuel could be stolen and turned into a powerful bomb is likewise more Hollywood than reality.

Atomic numbers and enrichment levels are confusing, but important. Weapons grade materials are plutonium, uranium 233 and highly enriched (better than 20 percent) U235. Power plant fuel is slightly enriched (under 4 percent) U235. Spent fuel is U238, which cannot cause a chain reaction.

Turning spent fuel into a bomb would require sophisticated reprocessing facilities, which terrorists are unlikely to have. Even a “dirty bomb” (radioactive materials around a non-nuclear explosive) would cause more fear than actual damage. And the U.S. nuclear industry’s commitment to safety also applies to guarding against theft and terrorism.

We need the electricity that nuclear power provides, and we can generate it safely. Imagine life without all the things that require electricity. Recall your inconvenience and financial losses when storms or blackouts knocked out your electrical power.

Experts worry that many parts of the United States are dangerously close to having major brownouts and blackouts, because we haven’t built the power plants and transmission lines needed for an economy that depends on electricity 24/7/365.

We need to conserve more, install more insulation and better windows, and use more efficient appliances, computer servers, heaters and air conditioners. We need more wind and solar power, where those sources make economic, practical and environmental sense. But we also need more affordable, reliable electricity from nuclear power plants.

Heating, cooling, electrical, communication and other technologies changed fantastically over the last century. Over the next 50 years, they will progress beyond anything we can imagine. But we need real energy for real people, today.

Otherwise, homes, factories, offices, schools and hospitals will go dark. Breadwinners will go jobless. Energy prices will spiral higher. Families won’t have basic necessities, much less luxuries.

And poor and minority citizens will see civil rights gains rolled back, because only reliable energy and a vibrant economy can turn constitutionally protected rights into rights we actually enjoy.

Roy Innis is chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, co-chair of the Campaign to Stop the War on the Poor, and author of “Energy Keepers – Energy Killers: The new civil rights battle.” He recently visited nuclear power plants and a fuel reprocessing plant in France.