Energy & Environment

The Reactor Factor

The nation needs to invest in sources for electricity that won't emit greenhouse gases. Nuclear power could be the best, safest solution.
by | July 2007

State and localities around the country are trying to shame the federal government out of its indifference to global warming. But not many are ready to have a nuclear power plant built in their communities as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

After all, the U.S. Department of Energy hasn't lived up to the federal government's promise to find a permanent place to dispose of the radioactive waste that nuclear power plants generate. That irresolute performance is giving officials in 31 states no choice but to go along with stop-gap storage that will hold dangerous spent fuel rods in their backyards indefinitely. It's also left the American public with grave misgivings about nuclear energy at a time when turning back to this energy source makes sense.

To control carbon dioxide emissions, the nation will need to invest in electricity-generating capacity that won't emit even more greenhouse gases, and "nuclear energy is the only proven resource that can accomplish this goal on a large scale," the Consumer Energy Council of America concluded in a report issued this May.

American utilities operate 65 nuclear power plants that generate 19 percent of the country's electric power. But the nuclear industry lost its luster two decades ago as the public grew alarmed about reactor safety, cost overruns, shoddy construction and government's indecision about what to do with radioactive byproducts. National environmental groups dismiss nuclear power as a discredited and dangerous technology. Nor are many state regulators, legislators or local officials convinced that responding to climate change requires asking their constituents to live with new reactors that create more radioactive waste in their backyards. In some state capitals, they're still debating whether existing nuclear plants are safe to keep up and running.

As things stand, spent reactor fuel rods are already building up in temporary pools and concrete bunkers on power plant grounds close to lakes, rivers, highways and neighborhoods. The U.S. Congress approved plans 24 years ago to stow reactor waste beneath Yucca Mountain, 90 miles north of Las Vegas. But Nevada officials have been fighting the project, and rising costs, slipping deadlines and emerging geologic concerns make it questionable whether the facility will ever operate. Utah is also resisting a proposed temporary storage site west of Salt Lake City. Vermont, Minnesota and other states are reluctantly concluding that spent fuel will stay close to home indefinitely.

Nuclear power generates 70 percent of Vermont's electricity, and the state Public Service Board this April gave the 34-year-old Vermont Yankee station permission to start storing spent fuel in six concrete "dry cask" containers so the reactor can boost its output and keep running. Minnesota's legislature agreed to dry cask storage at the Prairie Island plant three years ago, and the state's Public Utility Commission is considering similar facilities to keep the state's other nuclear station operating. Minnesota depends on nuclear generation for 25 percent of its power, and state Senator Ellen Anderson, a consistent nuclear power critic, says she "can't see shutting down the plant as a likely outcome."

Federal officials are taking a new look at reprocessing spent fuel and reusing it to power reactors. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is moving to fund development of temporary, federally run storage sites in each state where nuclear reactors are operating. Anderson still doubts Minnesotans "will accept building new plants. It just doesn't make sense to do that without a solution for the waste, and we're not very close to having that." Anderson prefers energy conservation, renewable fuels and clean-coal projects as safer ways for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

But we're not that close to perfecting those, either. Besides, crash programs to mine coal and manufacture synthetic fuels could cause severe and irreversible damage. Surely nuclear engineers can learn from past technical mistakes to contain potential risks, and governments can finally agree on how to handle spent fuel. It will take some hard thought, but nuclear power might help supply the country's future energy needs without compounding a more momentous threat to the planet's environment.

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