Nuclear Power Lives!

Nuclear Power Lives!

"The Need for Nuclear Power" by Richard Rhodes and Denis Beller, in Foreign Affairs (Jan.–Feb. 2000), 58 E. 68th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

Read Time:
3m 2sec

"The Need for Nuclear Power" by Richard Rhodes and Denis Beller, in Foreign Affairs (Jan.–Feb. 2000), 58 E. 68th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.

Nuclear power, which seems to generate more fear than electricity, is yesterday’s energy source, its critics contend. On the contrary, it’s very much alive and on the verge of coming into its own, argue Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), and Beller, a nuclear engineer who works at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Though the number of U.S. nuclear power plants has fallen from 111 in 1990 to 104, today’s plants generate more electricity. Still the world’s biggest producer of nuclear energy, the United States gets 20 percent of its electricity from reactors.

Nuclear power’s role is even larger in other nations, such as Sweden (42 percent) and France (79 percent). "With 434 operating reactors worldwide, nuclear power is meeting the annual electrical needs of more than a billion people," Rhodes and Beller point out.

But two billion people--one-third of the world’s population--currently have no access to electricity. As global energy demand grows, the authors say, so will the role of nuclear power. The British Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering recently predicted that worldwide energy consumption will at least double in the next half-century, posing an awesome environmental challenge: how to limit surface and air pollution and global warming.

The "worst environmental offender" (leaving aside petroleum, the leading energy source, used mainly for transportation), say Rhodes and Beller, is coal, which supplies about a fourth of the world’s energy today. In the United States alone, according to recent Harvard University studies, pollutants from burning coal cause about 15,000 premature deaths a year. Besides toxic particles and noxious gases (such as sulfur oxide and carbon monoxide) that contribute to acid rain and global warming, burning coal releases mildly radioactive elements, including uranium. Were U.S. coal plants subjected to the same safeguards and restrictions on radioactive emissions as nuclear utilities are, Rhodes and Beller say, "coal electricity would no longer be cheaper."

Renewable energy sources also result in "significant, if usually unacknowledged" harm to the environment, the authors say. Making photovoltaic cells for solar collection, for example, produces highly toxic waste metals and solvents. A 1,000-megawattelectric solar electric plant, over a 30-year lifetime, would generate 6,850 metric tons of hazardous waste from metals processing alone.

"Natural gas has many virtues as a fuel compared [with] coal or oil, and its [22 percent] share of the world’s energy will assuredly grow," write the authors. But supply is limited, and it pollutes the air.

"The great advantage of nuclear power," Rhodes and Beller aver, "is its ability to wrest enormous energy from a small volume of fuel." One metric ton of nuclear fuel produces as much energy as two to three million metric tons of fossil fuel--and with less danger to the environment. Unlike fossil fuel plants, nuclear power plants release no noxious gases or other pollutants into the environment.

As for the radioactive nuclear waste, Rhodes and Beller say that the risk from lowlevel radioactive waste is negligible, while the relatively small volume of high-level radioactive waste "can be meticulously sequestered behind multiple barriers."

Unlike coal’s toxic waste, which stays toxic, Rhodes and Beller write, the radioactive nuclear waste "decays steadily, losing 99 percent of its toxicity after 600 years--well within the range of human experience with custody and maintenance, as evidenced by structures such as the Roman Pantheon and Notre Dame Cathedral."


More From This Issue