Nuclear Power: A Renaissance, Without Fear

By April 26, 2007Energy, Global Warming

The world today has commemorated the 21st anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, prompting a useful assessment of nuclear energy a generation after the accident. (Although…why mark the 21st anniversary? Shall we toast, “Na zdorov’ya?”)

From Marketplace Morning Report, the anti-business business public radio program, comes an interesting report from Corvallis, Ore., where engineering students attending an American Nuclear Society conference appear receptive to nuclear energy.

If this were the ’80s, there might be protesters outside. But times have changed, and Idaho State nuclear engineering major Caleb Robison feels it.

CALEB ROBISON: There’s a lot more buzz about nuclear going on.

Robison says when student groups on his campus got together recently, he met some unexpected allies.

ROBISON: You wouldn’t have ever expected it because the uh, I guess I’d call ’em tree huggers, I don’t know what organization they were from, they came over and you would have thought that we were best friends. They said it was such a great idea and they supported nuclear power and they wouldn’t have said that 10 years ago. They would have been exiled from their own group for having said that.

Having honed one’s sense of editorial exasperation working at the Corvallis newspaper in the late ’80s, this blogger can attest to the fact that times have changed, indeed.

The willingness of young engineers to embrace careers in nuclear energy is important news. (Reported by Reuters here.) Stagnant for nearly three decades, the U.S. nuclear industry has struggled to develop a new generation of specialists, technicians, scientists and engineers, all necessary for the nuclear renaissance to grow. Indeed, steps to encourage that training is included in the NAM’s comprehensive strategy, “Energy Security for American Competitiveness.

Also marking the Chernobyl anniversary, our friends at Nuclear Notes, the NEI’s blog, have compiled several resources on the disaster, including this fact sheet. A key point: “All U.S. power reactors have extensive safety features to prevent large-scale accidents and radioactive releases. The Chernobyl reactor had no such features and was unstable at low power levels.”

Finally, this week the NAM’s radio program, “America’s Business with Mike Hambrick,” carries an interview with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich about energy policy. Gingrich is a supporter of nuclear power, and sees great damage having been done by scaremongers who exploited fears in the ’70s.

You have, by the way, for those people who say they are worried about global warming, you have the same kind of hysterical emotion caused by the movie, “The China Syndrome” about nuclear power. It turns out – and I think this is a great irony to pose to people like Al Gore — if the United States had followed the French in a clean nuclear strategy, and we were producing the same amount of electricity from nuclear that the French are, we would be generating two billion — not million — two billion, two-hundred million tons a year less in carbon.

The result, he says, would have been carbon emissions 15 percent below the levels required by the Kyoto agreement. Gingrich’s comments are available in an .mp3 file here, and we’ll have the full interview available tomorrow.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Don’t be fooled – the opposition to nuclear power is not going away. Why don’t you report that China has decided that nuclear power is not a good long term bet, given the uncertainty of uranium supplies? Why don’t you ponder on the huge number of countries that are apparently ‘going nuclear’ – most of N. Africa, some of central and south Africa, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia etc etc. Then think, how can an industry that has built so few plants (many of them old and ‘unsafe’ behind the Iron Curtain) be confident it can scale to ever meet the demand? And do it in a safe reliable way? It’s just hot air and is delaying a decisive move that would really make a difference.

    The investment and government subsidies should instead be going to technologies that won’t leave dangerous waste, won’t be targets for terrorism, and don’t rely on a finite fuel resource, that is expensive and ecologically damaging to mine and process.

    One of these you should be aware of in the US is Concentrating Solar Power (CSP). Ideal for countries with lots of hot deserts and high demand for electricity.

    CSP employs the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and half a million Californians currently get their electricity from this source. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

    CSP works best in hot deserts and it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient ‘HVDC’ transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may be transmitted to anywhere in the US. A recent report from the American Solar Energy Society says that CSP plants in the south western states of the US “could provide nearly 7,000 GW of capacity, or about seven times the current total US electric capacity”.

    In the ‘TRANS-CSP’ report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe.

    Further information about CSP may be found at and . Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from . The many problems associated with nuclear power are summarised at .