by Richard T. Stuebi
It was pouring rain last Wednesday morning, as I entered an office building near Cleveland Hopkins Airport to attend a meeting convened by Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) to discuss the future of nuclear energy.
Unlike many of his peers, Senator Voinovich appears to take the issue of climate change seriously. Also unlike many of his peers, he sees an increasing reliance on nuclear energy as essential in meeting the energy and environmental challenges of the future.
The keynote speakers of this 90-minute meeting were Dennis Spurgeon (Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, DOE), Dr. Peter Lyons (Commissioner, NRC) and Adrian Heymer (Sr. Director of New Plant Development, Nuclear Energy Institute). In attendance were representatives of Ohio-based utilities with nuclear fleets AEP (NYSE: AEP) and FirstEnergy (NYSE: FE), as well as major suppliers to the nuclear industry such as locally-based Babcock & Wilcox.
The basic message from the speakers was simple: a lot of nuclear plants must be built in the coming decades, and the U.S. urgently needs to take steps to get out of the way to enable the development of these new plants. The speakers outlined the activities required to revive the industry to bring about this nuclear “renaissance”: Federal loan guarantees (at 100% of debt requirements, not 90%) for new nuclear plants, opening of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste storage facility, increased training and workforce development to replace retiring nuclear engineers, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), etc.
And, the speakers couldn’t reiterate enough how safety was the paramount concern. This is truly an amazing technology if everyone has to emphasize how steps will be taken to ensure disasters don’t occur. (I am reminded to recall tour of the Clinton nuclear plant in Illinois in the early 1990’s, at which point about 200 of the 1100 site employees — almost 20% of staffing! — were dedicated to security, preventing people from doing the wrong things. I can’t think of another technology that requires so many band-aids to mitigate perverse effects. Hard to imagine any private investor wanting a piece of that cost structure.)
In the open discussion that followed the speakers’ remarks, I had the temerity to question the wisdom of furthering our bet on the uranium-fission cycle as the basic technological platform for nuclear power production in the future.
While I admitted that the current nuclear fleet was an important contributor to the energy mix that we can’t afford to prematurely retire, and I conceded that some new nuclear plants of more-or-less conventional technologies may be necessary as a stop-gap measure for a few years, I also submitted that other fission cycles — certainly including thorium, maybe others as well — ought to be explored much more thoroughly, so as to create the possibility of a new and much better generation of nuclear plants offering more than just incremental improvements.
This is because, in my view, uranium fission suffers from three unavoidable pitfalls:
1. Uranium supplies are hardly infinite themselves, and have a significant concentration in places like Russia that we ought to prefer NOT to rely upon for precious commodities.
2. Uranium fission creates sizable quantities of transuranic wastes of extreme toxicity and half-lives measured in the thousands of years.
3. Uranium fission makes for excellent bombs — not only nuclear explosions, but also dirty residues — that would be highly prized by terrorists and other ne’er-do-wells.
I’ve been told by credible sources that fission from thorium essentially obviates each of these fundamental challenges. Relative to uranium, there are orders of magnitude more thorium in the earth’s crust, and it is widely distributed. Thorium fission produces wastes with much lower toxicity and much shorter half-lives (a few hundred years), in much lower quantities to boot. And, thorium doesn’t have a positive gradient that facilitates run-away fission that leads to explosions. These all sound like attractive attributes to me, worthy of a lot more exploration.
Alas, the nuclear experts at the meeting pooh-poohed thorium and defended uranium. They said that never had any uranium been used by bad guys to make a bomb. (You mean, Yet?) They said that the GNEP would create an effective international pact to prevent nuclear materials from getting into the hands of enemies. (Oh, really?) They said that there was plenty of uranium for the next generation of nuclear plants. (And then what?) They said that the GNEP would dramatically reduce the amount of long-lived nuclear wastes from future uranium fission facilities. (For tens of billions of dollars — what a bargain!)
Ultimately, I was not reassured by the views of the uranium fission advocates. To paraphrase Shakespeare, they doth defend too much. And, note that the nuclear industry is the not-so-pretty offspring of the military-industrial-Oedipal complex of the 1950’s.
It is hard to think of a less-credible set of proponents than those who carry the combined DNA of the defense and electric utility sectors, niether of which is particularly famous for a commitment to the truth in the light of established facts. Their mantra has often been: “Trust us.” I’m typically not paranoid, but in this case, I am very skeptical indeed.