Nukes now!

Post-Sept. 11, isn't it time to get off our fossil fuel fixation and take another look at nuclear power?

Published December 10, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Public opposition to Virginia's North Anna nuclear power plant delayed construction for months and cost the utility tens of thousands of dollars. But over the past 23 years -- since 1978, when the first reactor started producing electricity for Louisa County -- the local view of nuclear power has substantially softened.

Today, the North Anna Power Station consists of two reactors that jut up from the wooded hills next to Anna Lake, 60 miles from Richmond. And despite its proximity to the lake, the Anna River and several nearby summer homes, many residents strongly approve of the plant's role in the community. On Oct. 18, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a public hearing about re-licensing the plant, supporters outnumbered critics, and public officials bent over backward to praise Dominion Power, its present owner.

Some of the support stemmed from pure economics. C. Lee Lintecum, the Louisa County administrator, told regulators that the company pays $12 million in annual property taxes and employs 900 local residents, making it the county's largest employer and its "most valuable asset." But Lintecum also stressed that Dominion's "safety and security programs and personnel are excellent," and local environmentalists -- along with Lintecum -- admit that anti-nuclear opposition has waned in the face of accident-free operation.

"A lot of people have knee-jerk negative reactions to nuclear power but they shouldn't dismiss it out of hand," Lintecum says, explaining why the county's board of supervisors called for re-approval of the North Anna license. "It may offer a lot of things that are worth considering. We're in favor of it." Even after the Sept. 11 attacks, which brought federal troops to many of the nation's 103 reactors, Lintecum predicts that if Richmond-based Dominion wanted it, "the addition of another reactor would gain support."

He's not alone in that presumption. No new nuclear power plants have been ordered since 1978, but political, industry and academic support for nuclear power is on the rise in the United States. President Bush's energy plan called for new nuclear power plants. At least two companies have already started planning for new reactors, nuclear engineering departments at several American universities report that enrollment is up for the first time in a decade, and the IEEE Spectrum (the journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) published a special report last month on technological advancements that are fueling the new wave of popularity for nuclear power. Some industry-sponsored polls even purport to show that public support for nuclear power surged after Sept. 11.

Anti-nuclear critics take a jaundiced view of the new pro-nuke movement. They stress that there's still no public mandate for new nuclear reactors; that most independent polls reveal little more than a 50-50 split. They also dismiss the claims that newer plants will be safer than the 103 already in existence. Not only are the issues of radioactive nuclear waste and nuclear weapons proliferation still unresolved, they note, but since a hijacked plane, if purposefully crashed into a reactor, could cause an "American Chernobyl," as one critic put it, nuclear energy may even be more dangerous to pursue now than it was before Sept. 11.

But their criticisms come at a time when California's energy crisis, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and instability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf are inspiring what some now call a "national nuclear reassessment." While the opponents of nuclear power may still carry the day, the case for building new reactors appears to be stronger than it has been in decades. Now more than ever, say many economists, engineers and physicists, nuclear power looks financially, environmentally and politically appealing. Even with the risks posed by terrorism and radioactive waste, nuclear energy should and will likely be pursued, advocates argue, because it is safe, emission free, and far more secure than imported fossil fuels. Nuclear power already supplies the country with 20 percent of its electrical power but a nuclear renaissance may soon be upon us -- and none too soon, says Alan E. Waltar, head of the nuclear engineering department at Texas A&M University.

"Conservation and renewable energy sources [such as solar power] can only go so far," he says. "Realistically, if we're going to wean ourselves from fossil fuel anytime soon -- which we need to do for a variety of reasons -- nuclear power has to be part of the mix."

The roots of renewed interest in nuclear power can be found in the simple laws of supply and demand. Until quite recently, any attempt to revive nuclear power was stillborn, not necessarily because of political opposition, but because sources of new electricity didn't seem to be needed. Conservation and efficiency gains helped hold down growth in electricity demand; distributed generation (solar power, wind, fuel cells and other technologies) picked up any unexpected slack.

"Because of what we built in the '70s, the electricity industry came into the mid-'80s and '90s very heavy on capacity," says Richard Myers, director of business policy for the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group. "It's taken several years to burn off that capacity."

Today, after several years in which demand increased by a few percentage points each year, supply is essentially only meeting demand. Future growth will require either more conservation or more electricity. According to Waltar and other scientists, even if conservation becomes a priority, "we're at the point now where we have to get going with new energy sources." Otherwise, they argue, California's energy crisis -- which resulted in high prices, utility bankruptcies and sudden calls for new plants -- could eventually become a national norm.

Critics respond that many states have excess energy capacity that would prevent a repetition of the California debacle. They also point out that California, which suffered from a botched deregulation plan and numerous other idiosyncrasies, isn't necessarily a model for what will happen elsewhere.

But national demand is indeed rising every year. And now, 22 years since the reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island and 15 years after the Chernobyl accident in Russia killed at least 31 people and poisoned the surrounding area, nuclear energy advocates are convinced that they can make a good case for their industry. No one has revived the 1950s claim that nuclear-generated electricity will be "too cheap to meter," but today's nuclear advocates, unlike their predecessors, can now point to years of competitively priced, accident-free operation.

Technology and experience, experts argue, have helped the industry improve both kinds of American reactors, water-cooled and gas-cooled. Today's reactors still essentially work as they did in the past -- like tea kettles. Nuclear fission creates heat, changing water to steam or heating the inert gas, which then turns a turbine that generates electricity. Yet, while the overall theory of reactor design remains largely unchanged, both designs have benefited from technological innovations that, if added to new plants, promise to make advanced iterations safer and more affordable.

On the safety front, new designs make more use of what are called "passive safety features" -- in other words, ones that don't require machine activation. Some of these advances seem like the application of simple common sense. Instead of building water-cooled reactors that, for example, actively pump cold water to the reactor core in the case of an out-of-control reaction -- the aspect of Three Mile Island's safety system that failed back in 1979 -- new designs place the water above the target. Gravity, not complicated pumping mechanisms, brings the cool water to the core.

Other more complex developments have tended to concentrate on gas-cooled reactors. Many specific design tweaks promise to make gas-cooled reactors more efficient. Bearings have recently been successfully developed that float through magnetic force, removing the need for lubricants. But most experts point to the Pebble-Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) as an example of the upcoming gas-cooled revolution. This design, as marketed by Chicago's Exelon Corp., uses several passive protection features: The use of helium (which can't physically absorb radiation) ensures that a gas leak would not be radioactive; graphite control rods that absorb nuclear heat in the case of an accident fall with the force of gravity; and the radioactive fuel (enriched uranium) is held in graphite-wrapped billiard-sized balls, "which can withstand very high temperatures without breaking down," according to the Spectrum editors. In fact, even if the gas coolant completely disappeared and even if the control rods failed to release -- a worst-case scenario, unmatched in human history -- a meltdown would not occur. The core's maximum temperature, Exelon claims, will be 1,600 degrees Celsius, 400 degrees below the fuel's melting point.

"It's a big step forward in terms of safety and energy efficiency," says Per Peterson, a nuclear engineering professor at Berkeley. "It implements a lot of things that we have thought were good directions to go: passive heat removal; small modular units; fewer moving parts."

Exelon may be too optimistic. Meltdowns might occur through a previously unforeseen safety breach and some critics argue that the Pebble Bed design is not nearly as safe as advocates claim.

"They have to go back and reevaluate this thing," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who notes that the PBMR design, unlike standard nuclear reactors, includes no containment unit to encase the core in the event of a meltdown. Chernobyl, note other critics, also didn't have a containment unit. And Makhijani says there are other problems with the design.

"The reactor is helium cooled but there is water in the tertiary system, in the electrical power system," says Makhijani, who has a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. "Graphite and steam would be a terrible mixture because if there's a fire, you create carbon monoxide and hydrogen [which is extremely flammable]. You'd need just a spark to set it off, if you have enough of it."

But nuclear power fans say such fears are far-fetched. Today's atomic power plants are already statistically safe -- employees who have worked with nuclear power are less likely to be hurt on the job than those who work with gas and coal, which fuel 66 percent of the nation's power plants. And new designs have also gained from the rise of prefabrication and computer modeling, both of which have helped minimize engineering defects that might cause problems.

"The industry has really gone back to the drawing board and come back with new designs that do a much better job with safety," says Waltar at Texas A&M. "If we start building plants, we're going to be building plants that are better than anything we've built before."

Advocates claim that the technological advances not only improve safety, but they also make nuclear power plants cheaper to build and operate.

Because the construction of a new nuclear plant in the U.S. hasn't occurred since the 1970s, there's no way of knowing whether new reactors will be affordable, even with new technological advances. But if nuclear power plants are ever to have a future in the United States, they must be competitive with other energy sources -- and many experts are predicting that the numbers will line up in nuclear power's favor.

Nuclear reactor operators have already made significant financial strides. Companies such as Entergy of New Orleans and Virginia's Dominion Power have been buying nuclear power plants all over the country because they believe they'll be profitable. And it's easy to see why. Plants are more efficient than ever. In 1990, only about half the nation's reactors ran at more than 70 percent of their capacity; nine years later, 90 plants had capacity factors of 80 percent or more. According to former NRC commissioner James Asselstine, who testified at a congressional hearing in May, the nation's reactors now produce power for about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable to coal, about half the cost of wind power and not far below the current costs for electricity from gas-powered plants. Nuclear is even competitive with conservation. Nuclear is even competitive with conservation. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, the costs of encouraging people to save power and increase end-use efficiency add up to about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour saved. In other words, the amount you pay to drive demand down is about the same as the amount you would pay to increase supply, via nuclear power.

Atomic energy also has another advantage: its fuel prices are stable and relatively cheap. "The fuel cost in coal is two-thirds of operating cost whereas with nuclear it's one-third to half of the total cost," says Ron Hagen, a nuclear analyst at the Energy Information Association, the research arm of the Department of Energy. "This is important, because if you want to operate in a market, what matters is marginal cost; how much will it cost to sell extra power?

"So say you want to produce another kilowatt-hour of electricity and you're trying to decide between coal and nuclear power," Hagen explains. "Both have the same operating costs overall, but coal requires a larger investment to add extra power, so what do you do? You shut off the coal plant and keep the nuclear plant going."

But operating costs are only part of the equation. The multibillion-dollar question is whether energy companies will be able to build new reactors at a competitive price. Most of the reactors now dotting the country cost a mint to build. The Tennessee Valley Authority's Watt's Bar reactor -- completed in 1996, making it the newest reactor in the U.S. -- took almost 23 years to build and cost nearly $8 billion. Will the industry be able to avoid repeating its past mistakes? Will computer modeling and other technological advances do the job?

The Nuclear Energy Institute is convinced that new nuclear power plants will be price competitive. Experts at the industry's lobbying arm claim that new reactors can be built for $1,000 to $1,200 per kilowatt of capacity, making them cheaper to build than so-called "clean coal technologies" and just slightly more expensive than gas-fired plants -- which have higher operating costs than nuclear plants. Pebble Bed units, which are smaller than most reactors now in service, might eventually be constructed for even less.

Independent experts question the industry's estimates. Months before the terrorist attacks, Amory Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, argued that "nuclear power's failure in the marketplace is irreversible." And in the wake of Sept. 11, many observers -- including former NRC commissioner Peter Bradford, who gave a speech on the subject Oct. 4 -- have stressed that political opposition coupled with new anti-terrorism security will drive nuclear economics into the red.

"[The industry's] living in a dreamland," says Makhijani. "Terrorist attacks are a vulnerability that cannot be overcome except at an extremely high cost."

Even nuclear-friendly observers like Peterson at Berkeley and Hagen at the EIA tend to believe that in today's political climate, new plants can't be built for less than $1,500 to $2,000 per kilowatt.

And yet, despite the extreme financial uncertainty, the nuclear industry continues to forge ahead, convinced that the investment risk is justified. The financial circumstances surrounding nuclear power have changed, they argue. The competition's prices are rising while nuclear's are dropping. "In Japan, they're finishing plants in 52 months; here the shortest time frame [for the construction of a reactor] was 6-8 years," says Peterson. If the U.S. can cut construction time, budgets will shrink. "The quicker a plant is built, the faster debts can be paid," he says.

Peterson and others figure that new U.S. regulations, which streamline the process of licensing a power plant, will help American companies match Japan's pace. At the very least, mid-construction delays like those at North Anna should be less common because, says Myers at NEI, "you get a combined operating and construction license before you stick a stake in the ground."

The new licensing structure, approved in 1992, has never been tested, so there's no way of knowing whether Myers' optimism is warranted. If a vulnerability is discovered while the core is being constructed, it's hard to believe that the NRC wouldn't force companies to rebuild according to an amended code, as they did after the Three Mile Island scare in 1979. And the resurgence of a strong anti-nuclear power movement would also be sure to raise costs unpredictably.

Still, Myers and other advocates argue that licensing reform is but one of many cost-cutting policy tools in the nuclear quiver. Environmental regulations also aid the atomic cause. By making coal- and gas-fired plants more expensive to run, the Clean Air Act and other laws make nuclear power more financially attractive. Some nuclear advocates figure that with global climate change becoming an ever-larger concern -- and with oil and gas supplies from the Persian Gulf looking insecure -- Congress will eventually add even more costs to coal and gas plants. Indeed, at some point, says Carl Crawford, manager of nuclear communications at Entergy Nuclear, one of two companies in the initial phases of new reactor development, Exelon being the other, "the country's going to need electric power that's not going to emit carbon dioxide. And we're going to need a domestic fuel so we don't have to rely on fossil fuel."

But even if the industry could find a way to build nuclear power plants quickly and for a competitive price -- which will be no easy task -- should nuclear power be pursued, particularly in light of Sept. 11? Is nuclear power actually safe enough to become a growth industry?

Nuclear critics respond resoundingly: "No way."

Anti-nuclear activists highlight two major dangers that have yet to be resolved: nuclear waste, and the threat of terrorism. After Sept. 11, they've begun to look more entwined.

Waste is an old issue; it's been around since the nuclear energy industry erected its first plant. But despite the changes in other areas of nuclear energy, the process of waste management has remained largely the same. Most of the nation's spent fuel still resides in pools of water on the reactor campus where it was used. New storage casks, a mix of steel and about 2 feet of concrete, have become more popular in the past few years, but they hold only 5 percent of the nation's spent fuel, according to the NEI.

Other countries, such as Japan and France -- which gets about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power -- recycle nuclear fuel, but President Ford banned reprocessing in 1974, after India tested a nuclear weapon that had been manufactured using materials exported by the U.S. for peaceful purposes. Some nuclear energy experts have long pushed to see the law changed, arguing that the risk of nuclear proliferation from reprocessed fuels is low, but in the meantime, it would also like to move the waste to a more permanent depository. Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, has long been designated as one such site. But while several experts, Peterson included, have approved the area and the facility's design, the Department of Energy is still trying to decide whether the mountain is safe. Approval may not arrive for years, if ever.

And as far as critics are concerned, no amount of diligent study will be enough. The problem of terrorists getting their hands on the materials to make bombs is reason enough, argue critics, to put a clampdown on all nuclear engineering.

Nuclear scientists can't be trusted, says Larry Rosenthal, president of Concerned Citizens of Louisa County, a watchdog group that's opposed nuclear power since North Anna was first proposed. "Nuclear scientists have said that they could always solve the issues of nuclear power -- the radiation and the storage -- but they have consistently been wrong," he says. Supposedly safe plans to bury it in space, bury it in the ocean, put in salt domes in the Midwest have proven less than safe -- "completely wrong," says Rosenthal.

The system now in use isn't much better. Spent fuel pools reside outside the containment structure, as do the concrete, dry casks. A hijacked plane would have a much easier time compromising the fuel than it would the reactor. Because neither the reactors nor the storage facilities were designed to withstand the attack of a commercial jetliner, there's no way of knowing whether the structure would actually be compromised. But NRC studies on sabotage show that a truck bomb, driven by a suicide bomber, would be enough to crack into many nuclear plants, the contained core included.

"Between 1982 and '91, the NRC conducted dozens of tests -- mock terrorist attacks -- and 27 of 50 reactors failed their tests," says Scott Denman, executive director of the Safe Energy Communication Council, a national energy watchdog coalition. "In 2001, six of the 11 plants that were tested failed."

Another NRC report, issued internally in 1999 by security expert David Orrick, pointed out that "significant weaknesses" in the nuclear security structure could cause an "American Chernobyl" -- core damage and a radiological release. Not even the pro-nuclear NEI denies that a plane could compromise many of the nation's nuclear power plants; when asked, John Vincent, one of the group's security experts, said simply, "We're still trying to figure out what can we say about that. We're researching it now."

The stakes are huge. Chernobyl killed 31 people through immediate exposure to radiation, and possibly thousands more over time. "Using the cancer risk estimates from the National Academy of Sciences, and based on establishment and regulatory material, the number of people who will die from Chernobyl radiation is about 30,000," says Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "That's a massive population."

But just because nuclear advocates can't guarantee complete safety doesn't mean that they're abandoning the cause. They counter "the fear factor," as Waltar puts it, by stressing probability. The likelihood of an attack on a nuclear power plant is slim, they argue. Terrorists wouldn't aim for a reactor because the target is better protected than just about any other structure. It's too hard to successfully strike -- "the plane would have to hit at a certain angle," says Vincent at NEI -- and even if a plane crashed into the reactor, there's a good chance that no radiation would be released.

"It's true that [reactors] weren't designed to tolerate an impact from a 757, but just because it wasn't designed for it doesn't mean that it won't handle it," says Vincent, a former engineer for General Public Utilities. "We over-design in certain areas so we might have ended up covering for this kind of thing too."

Waste issues have also been blown out of proportion, say nuclear scientists. The waste issue still needs to be resolved, they admit, but because nuclear fuel is so energy-intensive -- one marble-sized uranium pellet contains the same amount of energy as 149 gallons of oil -- nuclear waste takes up relatively little space. The entire body of used fuel in the U.S. (about 40,000 metric tons) would cover the size of a football field to the depth of about five yards, according to one NEI analysis.

Plus, scientists ask, was Chernobyl really as much of a tragedy as nuclear critics claimed? They're not joking. While nuclear critics see Chernobyl as a colossal disaster, which sent a cloud of radiation to Europe and killed thousands, nuclear scientists argue that the catastrophe was a worst-case scenario that still killed fewer people than say, a hijacked airliner flown into the ground rather than an office building.

"The degree of death that's been demonstrably shown is much less than what people said at the time," says Hagen at EIA. "There were 31 deaths directly related but the only cancer's proven to have been caused by Chernobyl was thyroid cancer -- and it could have been avoided with iodide."

Makhijani calls such claims "a gross misrepresentation."

"It's true that the number of dead bodies you can count is only 31," he says. "But the number of people who cleaned up Chernobyl was in the hundreds of thousands and many of them have not been followed since the accident." Given the radiation released, it's "false positivism" to believe that these people were not affected, he says.

But Waltar, defending the position that Chernobyl's effects have been overestimated, points out that the cleanup crews did not wear radiation-resistant clothing; that the general population had no idea that they were in danger. When he went to Chernobyl nine years after the accident, he says he discovered that most of the deaths could have been avoided.

"This was horrible, horrible accident, but they had wedding parties in the open air on the day of the tragedy," he says. "They didn't do anything to remediate the situation." The mistakes Russia made wouldn't be repeated here; we're "far more prepared," he says.

But are we prepared enough? Versions of this question will likely dominate the upcoming national debate. Politicians, CEOs and the public have already started asking: Can the U.S. protect nuclear energy? Should it be used as a tool to wean Americans from their dependence on foreign oil? Or is nuclear power simply too dangerous and too expensive to pursue?

Critics like Rosenthal hope that Sept. 11 will teach Louisa County residents around North Anna and the country as a whole "to get off this nuclear bandwagon."

"We've experimented with nuclear power, and it's been proven to be a failure," he says, noting that Germany and Sweden have decided to phase out nuclear energy. "Let's move on."

But for every nuclear critic who appears at a public hearing, there seems to be yet another nuclear apostle nearby. In Washington, on Wall Street and in small towns that are already familiar with nuclear power, new reactors look like viable energy sources or tools for recession relief. And this time, critics aren't the only ones claiming the high moral ground.

"As a scientist and an educator, I have an ethical responsibility to tell this story," Waltar says. "I don't want my grandchildren to come to me -- when the serious effects of global warming occur -- and ask why I didn't do anything. Frankly, I cry sometimes when I think about it."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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