Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Repeal the Nuclear Moratorium

Efforts to repeal Illinois' 20-year-old moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants until arrangements are made for the permanent storage of highly toxic nuclear waste products, have stalled once more, even though the sponsor of HB2971, State Representative Jo Ann Osmond (R. 61st District) intends to re-introduce the bill next year. The bill faces strong opposition from the environmentalist movement, as well as the doubts and fears of a public imprinted by the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Middletown, PA; and the level 7 disaster, the worst in the history of nuclear power generation, at the Soviet-designed and operated Chernobyl plant in Ukraine.

The exploitation of these two events by anti-nuclear activists, along with the wide-spread public ignorance of the risks, benefits, and costs of various sources of energy, have combined to create a hostile climate for the further development of nuclear power in the United States generally, but particularly in Illinois, which is ironic considering that this state is the crucible of civil nuclear power in this country, and is more dependent upon nuclear for electrical power than any other state.

Americans have allowed themselves to be lulled into dangerous complacency regarding energy supplies, thanks to current low oil and gas prices, and the more immediate threats to our well-being from the collapse of our financial system and resulting economic morass. The deepening recession has caused an immediate steep drop in demand for energy, with the result that prices for most energy sources have tanked, and concerns regarding our precarious energy situation have been shunted to the back burner.

This complacency could prove deadly in a very short time, as global demand for energy continues to increase rapidly, and other nations, notably the large, rapidly developing nations of Asia, compete with us for dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. The two most populous nations, India and China, are aggressively staking claims on future oil production and rapidly increasing their electrical generating capacity, while the OPEC nations sequester more of their supplies for their own use and other developing nations are catching up to the two Asian superpowers in industrial capacity and energy demand.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), countries around the world must build at least 32 nuclear power plants each year by 2050 in order to meet increasing demand for electricity. The United States will have to build about 30 large facilities just to replace its aging nuclear fleet and stay even with current demand. Additionally, if we are to convert our transportation to electrical power on the time table dictated by global depletion of liquid fuels and the subsequent rapid increase in fuel prices that will result, we will have to increase our generating power substantially, and we don't have forever to do it before increasing fuel prices render the project unaffordable.

Americans, however, are apt to rest easy, for we are so accustomed to a plentitude of cheap energy, and already have enough electrical generating capacity in place to meet current demand, so the peaking of oil production seems to many of our political and business leaders to be a distant threat at worst, given the current temporary gasoline glut and falling demand. Additionally, we have immense reserves of coal, and natural gas is still plentiful and its production peak lies several years out.

Worse, though, is our sanguine assumption that "renewables" will offset the reduction of oil, and eventually gas, and that we can make an easy and seamless transition to solar, hydro, and wind with no loss of amenity and no re-arrangeing of our lifestyles, industry, or commerce necessary. This dangerous fiction is driving U. S. energy policies, as articulated by Chairman Jon Wellinghoff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who stated with great certainty that no new nuclear or coal plants will ever be needed again in the U.S. and that renewables like wind, solar and biomass will provide enough energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands and that nuclear and coal plants are "too expensive".

This is a very scary utterance, coming as it does from the mouth of the man who has the power to determine the direction of energy development in this country, and it has life or death implications for 310 million people, a large fraction of whom could find themselves unable to afford electricity in any form on any terms, if we fail to keep up with the increase in demand and to offset the loss of fossil fuels. Steep and rapid reduction in the availability of fossil fuels could force many tens of millions of people out of cars and onto public transit, causing a massive surge in demand for electrical power that cannot conceivably be met by renewables in their current state of development, and it's most unlikely that these diffuse and intermittent forms of energy will ever supply more than a small fraction of current demand, let alone meet future increases in demand. Moreover, a massive surge in demand concurrent with conversion to coal for generation would reduce our coal reserves from a 250 year supply, which estimate is based on current demand, to a 50 year supply if use of coal should increase by even 5% yearly.

Anti-nuclear activists claim that the expense of building and operating nuclear plants exceeds that of most renewables. Their comparisons are based on the extremely high costs of Generation 1 light water reactors, the first generation of plants constructed. Nuclear power was a pioneering technology during the decades these plants went up, and like all new technologies, was costly, clunky, and tricky to operate. Down time was frequent. The plants were custom built down to the last reinforcement rod, which resulted in long construction delays and massive cost overruns. Surprises were frequent. Generation 2 plants incorporated new and refined technologies that reduced both construction costs and down time, and included vasty improved safety features. Generation 3 reactors incorporate many mass-produced parts, realizing steep reductions in costs and in construction time, and are vastly safer than their predecessors.

Moreover, the newest nuclear technology, developed 30 years ago and now commercially viable, the Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor, is a vast advance on even the newest and most advanced light water reactors. This nuclear technology uses thorium, which is abundant, instead of uranium 235, which is depleting rapidly. It is an inherently safe technology and produces fissionable by-products that can extend the fuel cyle hundreds of years and that cannot be used to produce nuclear weapons. The reactors are small and are to be mass-produced in factories, requiring a lesser skill set, thus saving labor costs, and can be transported to the site by truck or rail. Several units can be combined at a particular site to provide power for larger communities.

This is not to say that renewables should be abandoned. But at this point, renewable sources either don't "scale" to the power needs of large populations, or will not work in many locations due to climate or topography- unless that population is to give up most of the basic improvements in lifestyle of the past century, including advanced sanitation, motorized transportation in any form, and regular electricity available 24 hours per day.

The quality of our lives, and possibly whether or not a large percentage of us will even be able to survive at all, depends upon decisions being made now regarding the funding of energy research and development, and the regulation of the industry. The decision to foreclose any future development of an energy source that is potentially can provide more power for many more years into the future with minimal pollution, will have tragic consequences for millions of people, including me and most likely you as well.

We can't afford to not to build more nuclear reactors, and we need to pressure our representatives to repeal the nuclear moratorium in Illinois and hope that other states do likewise.

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