Most controversial resource or most valuable player?
Hi and welcome to Make it Green Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for an Earth Friendly Life. I was watching the first presidential debate of 2008, and it hit me that energy figures prominently in both candidates buzzword vocabulary. Just over half of the electricity generated in America comes from fossil fuels, meaning coal, oil, and natural gas. Only 19% of our national energy budget comes from nuclear power. In a time that we are trying to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, avoiding nuclear power is the energy equivalent of the pre-Christmas crash diet without the soda pop. The quick and dirty tip for today is that if we're to create a sustainably energy economy, we must invest in nuclear energy -- now.
How Nuclear Stacks Up - Proven Technology
Nuclear power is proven technology - France get's 76% of it's electricity from nuclear fission. The nuclear power industry is far more mature than any of the other alternative energies, except maybe hydro-power from dammed rivers. With solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal still in the cradle, we need to spend our time and money on something we know how to do. Nuclear energy is the bridge between the industrial-aged fossil-fueled economy and a sustainable renewable one.
Cleaner fossil fuels are also a long way off, too. "Clean coal" is a term used to describe taking the carbon-dioxide emissions from a coal power plant and 'sequestering' them in some remote place. Carbon sequestration is only a budding technology, and we're nowhere near ready to install scrubbers on the thousands of coal-fired power plants across the country. At the current stage, we don't even know if the carbon dioxide will stay in time-out, or just leak away to suffocate us later.
The Beginning -- Uranium Mining
Uranium mining involves many familiar evils; toxic mine tailings, open pit mining, degradation of the landscape, and danger to mine workers. But most uranium now mined is the US is recovered in situ, which literally dissolves the ore that is sucked to the surface (an incredibly expensive process). By comparison, coal is mined using open cuts and mountaintop removal, which destroy entire ecosystems that were carefully assembled by nature over geologic time scales -- millions of years. Not only that, but it takes 3,200,000 (three million two hundred thousand) tons of coal to run a 1,000 MW plant for a year; it only takes 27 tons of uranium to generate that same 1,000 MW year.
Uranium is found in the US, but nowhere near as plentiful as our nations natural coal reserves. Our estimated reserve of uranium ore is some 890 million pounds; reactors in the US are currently using 53 million pounds a year, but less than 10 percent of it domestically produced. A lot of fuel also comes from the conversion of the fissile material (stuff that's suitable for power plants) that once lay in nuclear bombs. Plus, if we were to recycle the waste, we could drastically cut the need for new uranium.
We already have one of the worlds five uranium processing facilities, too, so the infrastructure already exists. We do not need to build extensive off-shore drilling platforms or develop techniques for squeezing gasoline from oil shale.
The Middle -- Nuclear Fission
Nuclear power begins in the fuel rods. Uranium is bombarded with small energetic particles, which excite the uranium so much that it tears itself apart into fragments. This process is called nuclear fission, because at the end you have totally new atoms, their nucleii mixed up, split, and rearranged.
Fission produces heat, so the essential part of a fission power plant is a steam turbine engine, the same as a coal-fired boiler. The water in contact with the fuel rods is cycled through heat-exchangers to heat steam to turn a turbine and do mechanical work, which is then converted into amazingly cheap electrical energy -- one and three-quarter cents per kilowatt-hour on average, compared with two and a half cents for a kWh of coal, and thirty cents for solar. When you put a price on carbon dioxide emissions -- or when you internalize the negative externality of those emissions -- coal is left far behind.
Since nothing is being burned, there are no carbon dioxide emissions to regulate, no mercury emissions falling into our rivers and oceans to poison us through the fish, and no sulfur or nitrous oxide emission to cause acid raid and damage the US soil.
Safety concerns begin with memories of the 1979 Three Mile Island, where poor engineering controls and operator error combined to create a near disaster; and the 1986 Chernobyl accident, where mismanagement caused a global catastrophe that confirmed our worst fears. Incidentally, both of these accidents were caused by coolant failures, not a nuclear meltdown. Now, every nuclear power plant is equipped with extensive engineering and managerial safety controls. Each and every plant has a so-called "Red Phone" that connects directly to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineer, 24-hours a day, and plant operators are given far more extensive training.
In the end, all of our electricity generation systems have ways of killing us. The chances of nuclear meltdown causing fallout to spread across the nation is a remote chance with today's technology. There is a one-hundred percent chance that coal-fired power plants using today's technology are slowly killing us with mercury in our fish, acid rain on our soils, and ozone, NOx, and particulates in our lungs.
The End -- Waste
After uranium fuel rods have been cooking for about 2 years, they're removed and put into highly secured storage on site at the power plant. The spent fuel rods contain all those daughter species produced during the reactions, which are radioactive, each in their own way. Some are very 'hot,' which means they produce copious energetic radiation. Some products have an extremely long half-life, which is the time it takes for half of the radioactivity to go away. For example, it takes 24,000 years for half of the Plutonium-239 produced by nuclear fission of the original Uranium-235 to decay away. That's just half. Imagine how long it takes for the radiation to drop to safe levels.
The most unattractive thing about the nuclear industry is this waste stream. On-site storage is filling up fast, as the US produces some 2,000 tons of radioactive waste each year. The US government has permitted deep geologic disposal for these high-level wastes, at Yucca Mountain in my home state of Nevada. But, by the time Yucca Mountain opens it's doors, we will have already produced more waste than Yucca's 70,000 ton capacity. Further study of the site suggests it wasn't as stable as we thought, either.
There is a way out. Spent fuel is not really 'spent;' it still contains 99 percent of the nuclear energy of the virgin fuel -- energy we can harvest by technological means that are proven in countries like France, the UK, Japan, and India. If we recycle this waste, we will produce far less waste, in forms that are less radioactive and has shorter half-lives. We would not need to mine new uranium for centuries. In that time, we could be finding even better ways to reprocess fuel, and plan the eventual retirement of the transitional nuclear economy.
President Reagan lifted the ban on reprocessing in 1981. Fear of nuclear proliferation, which is when materials for bomb making get into the hands of people who mean to use them as weapons of mass destruction, is the emotional issue keeping us from taking the final step of investing in fuel reprocessing centers. First generation fission products are easy to make into a nuclear weapon. But is it safer, then, to hoard the precious deadly substance, to attempt to transport it securely across thousands of miles from plant to repository in the face of global terror, to allow it to live on for thousands of years waiting for someone to dig it up? Sounds like an easy question to me - I'd rather use the stuff and get some energy that was once called "too cheap to meter."*
It will take many years for us to develop truly renewable, sustainable energy. Nuclear power is not itself considered 'renewable.' But it is a long term solution to our resource woes, because it will give us the time we need to create the safe, renewable, sustainable energy solutions our society needs to get off oil. Let's invest in it, before everyone who ever knew anything about nuclear power plants retires and dies.
*1955 Lewis Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Committee
Environmental Protection Agency on Nuclear Power
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Nuclear Energy Institute
Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese
Seeds of Wealth by Henry Hobhouse
Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller <-- MIGG Highly recommends this one! Her sister had professor Muller for PffP at Berkeley