Can nuclear power catch a break?

By Cooper Wetherbee

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Nuclear power plants have always held a unique place in the American psyche; the aftermath of reactor accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have created a deep-set cultural distrust of fission reactors as a source of electric power, a distrust parodied through The Simpsons’ bumbling protagonist Homer Simpson. A dilapidated and dangerous plant, the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Reactor stars irradiated glowing mice; skeletons in the basement; nuclear waste leaks; and employees who down their morning coffees as they ignore warning klaxons blaring in the background. Watch a few episodes, and you understand the fears that have prevented the construction of new nuclear plants since 1988.

However, the rising monetary and environmental costs of coal-burning power plants have inspired a wave of planning for new nuclear facilities. In Tennessee, construction has resumed on a reactor at the Watts Bar site, after being halted in 1989 due to cost and safety concerns. The plant is seen as
a test run for the government-run Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which regulates the development and operation of U.S. nuclear plants. Should the Watts Bar construction prove successful and cost-effective, the agency plans to give the go-ahead to seventeen additional reactors, most of which will be in the Eastern time zone.

Nuclear wasn’t always the energy industry’s underdog. In the 1950s and
60s, before well-publicized reactor meltdowns put the brakes on reactor construction, nuclear fission was widely hailed as an energy solution for the future. Even today, despite the lack of new generation facilities, nuclear power is the third largest source of electricity in the United States, behind only coal and natural gas. In 2011, the U.S. sourced 19% of its electric power from nuclear fission reactors, a share larger than the combined percentage generated by wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass sources. Some states derive a far higher percentage of their energy from fission reactors: in Illinois, nuclear power from the state’s seven reactors accounts for over 50% of statewide electricity generation.

Unlike the carbon-belching smokestacks that burn coal or oil to produce electricity, nuclear plants release only water vapor directly into the atmosphere. The remaining waste – degraded uranium and radioactive control rods – is kept indefinitely onsite in cooling ponds. This second component of the nuclear waste equation is where nuclear power gets controversial. Spent rods and fuel residue remain radioactive for thousands of years, and all waste must be carefully sealed and guarded to prevent leakage or theft. Although the negative public perception of nuclear power stems largely from large-scale reactor meltdowns, improper waste storage and disposal is a far greater challenge to the proliferation of nuclear plants.

In reality, the logistical challenges created by radioactive nuclear waste materials are actually significantly smaller than the radioactive pollution released by the combustion of coal for energy. Although the most often cited pollutants from coal are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur, and mercury, coal also contains trace amounts of uranium and other radioactive metals. According to the EPA’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, coal combustion produces over six times more radioactive waste per unit of energy produced than nuclear fission. Radioactive coal emissions enter the atmosphere directly, whereas nuclear waste remains solid form and can be easily contained.

Nonetheless, any country that aims to use nuclear energy as its main power source needs to have a game plan set to effectively manage radioactive waste. Within the US, this is complicated because of the termination of the Yucca Mountain project in 2011, which was supposed to be a central disposal site for nuclear waste. This dilemma helps to account for the three-decade freeze on development and construction of new nuclear power plants. If nuclear is to become a major energy source, policymakers must approve on a long-term waste disposal plan as soon as possible. While legislators currently agree on the importance of a single waste disposal facility, knee-jerk “not in my backyard” opposition from local politicians whenever a proposed disposal site is brought up for review means that little progress is being made.

As the new EPA emissions standards expect to cut annual carbon emissions by 30% by 2030 (compared to the levels in 2005), nuclear power has the potential to be a key player in the transition away from carbon-intensive electricity sources. If policymakers prioritize the construction of a major disposal site, the NRC can continue to approve new nuclear reactors for construction, and reliance on fossil fuels for power can be curbed without Simpson-esque glowing rats.

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