There is no doubt that a renaissance of nuclear power is under way in the United States and around the world.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses and regulates commercial nuclear activities, has received expressions of interest for building 32 new reactors. They have received four license applications for combined construction and operation, and several utilities have submitted Early Site Permits, including Southern Nuclear (Georgia Power) and Duke Power. Many countries are building new reactors or plan to, including Canada, Brazil, England, France, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Finland, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and others.
THE REASON IS clear. People have become aware that for several decades, nuclear power has had an incredibly good record of safety, environmental protection and low costs, and everyone wants a way to produce electricity that does not pollute. A wise person once said, "Facts are stubborn things." Here are some pertinent facts:
- Safety. No one has died from the radiation from power reactors, spent fuel or radioactive waste except in the Chernobyl accident, which could not happen anywhere else -- yet the only competitors of nuclear power, coal and natural gas, each cause several thousand deaths each year, worldwide, from coal-mining accidents, gas explosions and fires. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that 30,000 people die prematurely each year in the United States from the emissions of coal-powered plants. Nuclear is safer by a huge margin, and the next generation of nuclear plants, already being built, will be even safer.
- Environment. The outstanding environmental record of nuclear power plants is becoming legendary. They have no emissions that make acid rain, smog, global warming, ozone depletion or heavy-metal pollution. Many professional environmentalists and ecologists support nuclear power. A partial list includes: Dr. Patrick Moore, founder and past president of Greenpeace; Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue; James Lovelock, considered the founder of the environmental movement; Anglican Bishop Hugh Montefiore; Friends of the Earth; and Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute.
Global warming is indeed occurring, and the principal human contributor is carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from the burning of trees, coal, oil, and gas. Fortunately, we can do something about that without reducing our standard of living by going to nuclear production of electricity and using hydrogen for transportation. It is likely that the cheapest way to make hydrogen will be in nuclear plants.
- Cost. The operating cost for making electricity in nuclear plants is lower than any of its competitors. In 2006, nuclear plant operating cost in the United States averaged 1.72 cents per kilowatt-hour, coal 2.37, natural gas 6.75 and oil 9.63. Since then, the cost advantage of nuclear over coal has grown in part because coal plants are spending money to reduce their emissions. If construction costs are included, nuclear is already competitive, and is expected to gain an advantage as the price of new nuclear plants comes down, and the cost and time to get licenses is reduced.
- Public support. Americans have become aware of these advantages, and are supportive of nuclear power. Several national polls show that 68 to 70 percent of adult Americans support building more to meet our growing need for electricity. Support among people living near existing nuclear plants is 87 percent, and among college graduates with a technical degree is 85 percent.
IN SPITE OF this, a small minority of anti-nuclear zealots are mobilized to oppose all things nuclear. They claim that even a tiny amount of radiation is dangerous. If that were true, we would all be dead from the 370 millirem annual "background" radiation that we all receive, without harm, from natural sources plus medical and dental x-rays. There is no evidence that our background radiation is harmful.
The anti-nuclear community also exaggerates the problem of used nuclear fuel. When nuclear fuel is removed from a reactor, it is stored in cooling ponds at the reactor site until its radioactivity had decayed enough to be stored dry at the site in large shielded casks on concrete pads. These operations are quite safe, and well protected from terrorist attack.
Ultimately, used fuel will be recycled. That will do several important things -- recover the remaining 95 percent of the energy value that is still there, greatly reduce the radioactivity in the final waste, and allow all of the waste for the next 100 years, or longer, to be disposed of in Yucca Mountain.
Anti-nukes incorrectly claim, based on a couple of epidemiological studies, that people living near nuclear plants have an increased risk of developing leukemia. The incidence of leukemia varies widely with location. When a location with high incidence happens to be near a nuclear plant the anti-nukes say "Aha! The nuclear plant did it!" This ignores the hundred of independent and scholarly studies that have concluded the opposite.
The nuclear renaissance is real. It already is occurring. And folks who want cheap electricity and a clean environment are happy about that.
(The writers are, respectively, the chairwoman of the board of directors for Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken, S.C.; and the executive director emeritus and a consultant for CNTA.)