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Going nuclear

July 8, 2009 - Jim Anderson
Barack Obama is prepared to accept a nuclear compromise to pass a clean energy bill.

That could help meet U.S. energy demands with far less air pollution than fossil fuel plants. It also throws a new wrinkle into the problem of nuclear waste storage.

“I think nuclear power is going to be a very important factor in getting us to a low carbon future,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Senate’s environment and public works committee this week.

While research and promotion of nuclear energy is ongoing, construction of new plants in the U.S. is at something of a standstill. The nation’s newest nuclear energy plant is Watts Bar in Tennessee. Construction began in 1973, but the first unit didn’t come on line until 1996. (A second unit may begin operation in 2013.) About a dozen more plants are in the design stage across the country.

“Quite frankly, we want to recapture the lead on industrial nuclear power,” Chu told the Senate committee. “We have lost that lead as we have lost the lead in many energy technologies and we want to get it back.”

Republicans in the Senate are the main proponents of nuclear energy. Some have suggested that the U.S. move to build 100 new nuclear power plants by 2030.

Nuclear power is, of course, controversial. It is important in the global warming debate, since the plants themselves are promoted as “carbon- free.”

That, however, excludes the carbon factor in mining uranium ore, refining the fuel and building the plant. Critics also say that because nuclear plants are so expensive, we should consider what might be achieved with the same investment elsewhere.

Other drawbacks include terror threats, potential accidents and, perhaps most troubling, radioactive waste.

In a recent interview with Technology Review, Chu was asked how the U.S. will deal with the 50,000 metric tons of nuclear waste scattered among some 130 sites across the country. Some wastes are estimated to be dangerous for 100,000 years or more.

Chu responded that a “blue-ribbon” panel is being assembled to figure out both an interim and a long-term strategy. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is satisfied that dry cask storage at current sites will be safe for many decades, he said. (The Obama administration has taken the long-proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada off the table.)

For future nuclear plants, Chu hopes that emerging technologies will reduce the amount of waste and the lifetime of the danger. Burning existing waste is a far-off scenario, but it appears the need for storage will always exist.

“Knowing what we know today, there’s going to have to be several regional areas (for repositories),” Chu told the magazine.

Obviously, there’s a lot a stake. For one, the possibility of a nuclear waste repository in our region can’t be dismissed.

Also, the notion that new technologies will reduce the intensity of wastes is no sure thing. In fact, there are claims that some of the newest reactors may produce waste that is more radioactive.

We should also keep in mind that banning new nuclear plants wouldn’t do anything to solve the 110 million pounds of waste already on hand in the U.S. We’ve already established that legacy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is just one player in the world-wide nuclear market. To some degree, no matter what Congress decides, it’s onward nuclear wagons.


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