Saturday, 28 March 2009

Nuclear Dilemma

Saturday marks the anniversary of an event that changed the direction and history of American electricity generation. Thirty years ago, the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island suffered a partial core meltdown in Unit 2 when a stuck valve allowed coolant to escape. The accident on March 28, 1979, sparked safety concerns that effectively shut down an industry many had touted as the answer to America's future energy problems. 

Since the TMI accident, only one nuclear power plant has been built in the United States. The high cost of building nuclear plants, coupled with concerns about their safety, made this futuristic technology all but extinct. But concerns about nuclear power are now being replaced by concerns about global warming.

A number of prominent scientists and politicians - including President Barack Obama - insist nuclear power must play a role if the United States is to wean itself from foreign oil and reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear already a plays a significant role in the production of electricity. Nearly 20 percent of the nation's electricity is produced by nuclear power plants; 34 percent of Pennsylvania's electricity supply is derived from nuclear power. In 2008, TMI's Unit 1 set an operating record.

A spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute said nuclear power plants are operating more efficiently than ever because of technical improvements in turbines and generators. To that end, TMI plans additional improvements, as evidenced by last week's announcement that Exelon, which now owns TMI, intends to install two new 510-ton generators. Nuclear power plants also are staying online longer than previously forecast. TMI is expected to apply for a permit extension to operate through 2034. 

Citing safety improvements and 30 years of accident-free domestic operation since TMI, proponents argue that nuclear power plants are safe. Nuclear and coal-powered plants supply nearly half of the nation's base-load electricity supply. If the United States is to meet reduced carbon emissions goals and expand electricity capacity, nuclear has to be part of the equation. Preparations are now being made to build four or more nuclear power plants within the next 10 years. Some of these plants are expected to be sited at existing facilities. Nuclear power generation is not carbon-free - it emits about one- fourth as much pollution as coal-fired plants. As the debate over greenhouse gases grows, however, nuclear power looks greener all the time. Surveys show that more than half the public favors building more nuclear power plants. Nuclear might have even greater support if not for the waste it produces. And that is what this debate ultimately must be about. Spent fuel rods have a radioactive half-life of hundreds of years. With the Obama administration's decision not to pursue Yucca Mountain, Nev., as a national repository for spent fuel rods, the question is where these rods will be stored. 

Currently spent fuel rods are stored in high-security casks at nuclear power plants. Although nuclear industry officials contend that the casks are safe, the fact that radioactive materials are stored at each of the 104 nuclear facilities in the country poses an enormous security risk. NEI officials say that removing Yucca Mountain from the discussions is sensible - that they now can look into alternatives such as regional repositories. Reprocessing the fuel, which could be used to generate additional energy, also is a possibility.

The promise posed by nuclear power generation - to supply much more of the nation's electricity while cutting carbon emissions - is enormous. But before that can happen, officials and politicians must craft a publically supportable permanent solution for the radioactive waste these plants produce. Until that occurs, this space-age technology will remain bottled up.

Source: Intelligencer Journal


  1. I would like to know your reference about nuclear power plants not being carbon free. To my knowledge, they don't emit any carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. Their emissions are different - Iodine 131 for example.

    Spent fuel processing is the real solution for disposal of spent fuel.

    Nuclear power has a big role to play in meeting the energy needs of the whole world and that includes US.

    Retired Quality Management Professional
    from Nuclear Fuel Complex, Hyderabad, India

  2. From what source comes the news about carbon emissions? Never heard this before. Please some reference.

  3. "Saying nuclear is carbon-free is not true," says Uwe Fritsche, a researcher at the ├ľko Institut in Darmstadt, Germany, who has conducted a life-cycle analysis of the plants. "It's less carbon-intensive than fossil fuel. But if you are honest, scientifically speaking, the truth is: There is no carbon-free energy. There's no free lunch."

  4. Dear Rumpis, Dear S.V.Swamy,

    Thank you for commenting.

    Nuclear power has more than just a little greenhouse gas attached to it, when mining uranium ore, refining and enriching fuel, building the plant, and operating it are included. A big 1,250 megawatt plant produces the equivalent of 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year during its life, Dr. Fritsche says.



  5. Nuclear energy has future development, but should be implemented through a safe, “green” and advanced technology approach.

    Yolian M. Ivanov


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