Nuclear Power: Promise or Peril: It's All That Stands between Us and Environmental Disaster

By O'Neill, John | National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Nuclear Power: Promise or Peril: It's All That Stands between Us and Environmental Disaster


O'Neill, John, National Catholic Reporter


Americans should be most grateful that we have a readily available, economical, safe, environmentally friendly source of electrical power from nuclear plants to help avert the global warming that presents such potential disaster for our fragile planet.

That's not the usual message in the media, which often give airtime or newsprint to some perceived dire safety hazard or other promoted by antinuclear groups to clueless reporters.

So let's take a look at the record. In 50 years there have been no deaths from radiation exposure from nuclear plants in this country. None. That's 3,100 reactor years of operation over 50 years. Add 5,500 reactor years of operation by the nuclear Navy. None. Sixty years of transportation of nuclear materials. Still none, And, yes, the industry has safely managed its waste and will continue to do so.

Three Mile Island was a serious and expensive accident 27 years ago, but no one was killed or injured. The upshot was that companies with nuclear plants beefed up training and safety procedures. The Chernobyl reactor was very different from the technology used in American plants, had no thick containment building to hold in radiation like plants in the rest of the world, and had poorly trained operators. A similar accident in this country is impossible.

The remarkable safety record of American nuclear power plants is no accident. Nuclear plant design, construction and operation are closely regulated by federal agencies. Scrupulous nuclear plant owners established training institutions to ensure that personnel are superbly prepared.

However, the primary reason that nuclear power is poised for a renaissance is not its outstanding safety record but global warming caused by coal and natural gas plants. If nuclear plants aren't built, coal or natural gas plants will be needed to meet the planet's insatiable demand for electricity. There aren't any alternatives for large-scale electricity production and won't be any for decades.

In the United States, 600 coal plants produce about 50 percent of electricity; 103 nuclear plants produce about 20 percent; natural gas, about 19 percent; hydroelectric, about six percent; oil, three percent; and all other sources including solar, biomass and wind, less than 3 percent.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the electric power sector represented 39 percent of total U.S. energy-related emissions in 2004, with coal alone accounting for one-third. To our disgrace, nearly 9 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, the worst culprit in global warming, come from U.S. fossil power plants.

Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases. None. To meet new electrical demand with coal and gas production while the polar icecaps melt and sea levels rise, deserts expand and increasing hurricanes and cyclones churn through the oceans is nuts.

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