Why Environmentalists Should Promote Nuclear Energy

By Wolfe, Bertram David | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview
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Why Environmentalists Should Promote Nuclear Energy


Wolfe, Bertram David, Issues in Science and Technology


It may be the only viable energy option that can prevent economic stagnation, energy conflicts, and environmental degradation.

Third World population growth and economic development are setting the stage for an energy crisis in the next century. By mid-century the Third World population will double from 4 billion to 8 billion people, while the population of the industrial world will grow by about 20 percent to 1.2 billion. Impoverished Third World people today use less than one-tenth as much energy per capita as do U.S. citizens. Unless we expect to see the majority of the world's people living indefinitely in dire poverty, we should be prepared for per capita energy use to rise rapidly with economic progress. Even if Third World per capita energy use rises to only one-third of the U.S. level, that increase in combination with expected population growth will result in a threefold increase in world energy use by 2050.

If fossil fuels are used to supply this increased energy need, we can expect serious deterioration of air quality and possible environmental disaster from global climate change due to the greenhouse effect. In addition, increased demand for fossil fuels combined with dwindling supplies will lead to higher prices, slowed economic growth, and the likelihood of energy-related global conflicts. Does anyone doubt that Kuwait's oil resources were a major factor in U.S. willingness to take military action against Iraq? Increased competition for fossil fuels will only exacerbate tensions.

Alternatives to this scenario are few. Perhaps future world energy use can be stabilized at a level much less than a third of present U.S. per capita use. (Of course, the demand could be much higher.) Perhaps solar or wind power will become practical on a large scale. Perhaps fusion, or even cold fusion, will be developed. Perhaps some new, clean, plentiful energy source will emerge. We can all hope for an easy answer to our energy needs, but it is irresponsible to base our future on such hopes.

But if we limit our planning to proven and reliable energy technologies with adequate fuel supplies and low environmental risks that we know can meet the world's energy needs in the 21st century, we must focus on nuclear power. However, even conventional nuclear power plants will face fuel supply problems in the next century if their use expands significantly. Fortunately, we also have experience with nuclear breeder reactors, such as the Advanced Liquid Metal Reactor (ALMR), that can produce more than a hundred times as much energy per pound of uranium as do conventional reactors.

The United States has been a leader in the development of nuclear power technology and the adoption of stringent safety standards. Not a single member of the public has been harmed by the operation of any of the world's nuclear plants that meet U.S. standards. (The Chernobyl reactor, which lacked a containment structure, did not meet U.S. standards.) The United States has also been successful in using its peaceful nuclear power leadership to limit the worldwide spread of nuclear weapons.

But the future of nuclear energy in the United States is now in question. Since 1973, all new nuclear energy plant orders have subsequently been canceled. In 1993, U.S. utilities shut down three nuclear energy plants rather than invest in needed repairs. Of the 110 presently operating U.S. nuclear energy plants, 45 will reach the end of their planned 40-year life-time in the next two decades, and there are no plans for replacing them with new nuclear energy plants. Indeed, the utility industry seems to have no interest in even thinking about building new nuclear power plants. Not a single U.S. utility responded to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) request to test a proposed new procedure for early approval of a new nuclear energy plant site even though no commitment for actual site use was required. And the Clinton administration has canceled support for advanced nuclear energy development programs, including the ALMR program.

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