Feb. 16, 2001

Energy crunch refuels nuclear debate

With energy demands growing to meet the needs of an expanding global economy, nuclear power is undergoing a "renaissance," according to Denis Beller, a nuclear engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

"Nuclear power is now in resurgence," Beller said. "Nuclear power plants in the United States had record performances in 1998, ’99 and 2000."

Against a backdrop of rolling blackouts across Northern California, Beller spoke to a packed meeting of the American Nuclear Society’s local chapter in Pleasanton last month about "The Need for Nuclear Power." His talk was based on an article he co-authored with Richard Rhodes published in the January/February 2000 edition of the journal Foreign Affairs.

Beller said the article "counteracts" a rash of recent articles "that have appeared about nuclear accidents and nuclear waste." The article has attracted the attention of congressional representatives and was cited in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

If domestic and global economic growth are to continue apace, nuclear power will have to be a more important part of energy production than it is today, he said. "We use energy to do good things for people worldwide — build and light schools, run hospitals, power agricultural machinery and purify water, for example. Prosperity depends on energy but many don’t have enough.

"Our global neighbors need more energy. We will continue to see growth in global population and power production," Beller said, noting that 2 billion people don’t have access to electricity and a billion people "don’t have access to clean water.

"Electricity is needed for development, prosperity and health," he said. "The alternative to energy-sustained development is suffering."

Electricity’s share of power is growing and to meet the demand "we’re going to need thousands of new power plants by 2050."
Energy production will need to come from a variety of sources — wind, solar, gas and nuclear, Beller said, adding that currently oil, gas and coal are the world’s primary source of energy — 85 percent. "Most energy comes from burning natural resources, hydrocarbons.

"In our lifetime, we have enough natural resources, oil and natural gas," he said, though growing environmental concerns about global warming and other potential effects of pollution have raised questions about the wisdom of "burning things" to generate power.

The coal industry faces more issues than just global warming, he said, explaining that byproducts of burning coal to produce electricity include acid rain, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and other pollutants. "And radioactive emissions exceed nuclear power."

Also, coal plants in the United States generate 100 million tons of coal ash that must be disposed of each year.

Natural gas, the current fuel of choice for power generation, also has drawbacks, Beller noted. Gas is highly explosive and releases radon. The price of gas has also been volatile.

On Aug. 19 of last year, there was a one-kiloton natural gas pipeline explosion in New Mexico that caused enormous damage, he recalled. "People think nuclear power is risky and forget about things like this."

Nonetheless, natural gas "is the energy of the coming decade" because it is affordable, plentiful, clean, characterized by high-generation efficiency and "plants can be built very quickly."

For all their political appeal as environmentally friendly, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power also have drawbacks and are not always used appropriately, according to Beller.

Wind energy is not as "cheap, clean and green" as touted "because of the construction materials, such as steel and concrete, required to install windmills," he said. "It takes a lot of land for a windmill farm."

Renewable energy is not always reliable when power is needed, he added, citing problems with the Wisconsin wind project, which operates at a fraction of its capacity because of a lack of wind. "When you need air conditioners in Wisconsin, the wind isn’t blowing."

Because of the vast tracts of land required, windmill farms also suffer from "NIMBY" syndrome — or "not in my back yard."

Beller said "the actual costs of ‘green’ electricity are hidden from the public" because the billions of dollars spent on R&D, federal and state subsidies, energy surcharges and tax abatements are little scrutinized.

While "renewables" should be part of an overall energy strategy, these are inefficient, producing little energy per unit resource, Beller said. "Renewables should be used where appropriate. They can make an important contribution."

To meet future energy demands, diverse sources of energy will be needed and recognition of that is fueling the current resurgence of nuclear power, Beller said, adding that nuclear power plants around the country are being upgraded and refurbished and new plants are being planned.

"Nuclear power is cheaper than any other energy source," Beller said. "Nuclear power plants in the United States have the best operating and safety records of anywhere in the world."

The consolidation of nuclear power companies, such as the PECO Com Ed merger, has served to improve the efficiency and management of nuclear power. As a result the time of outages for reactor refueling has been greatly reduced.

"Nuclear power has minimal environmental impact," Beller said, reiterating a recent statement by former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson that "nuclear energy is clean."

Nuclear energy is needed for the United States to fulfill its commitment to global pollution reduction goals. "Without nuclear, we will not meet our Kyoto commitments," he said of the recent conference on global warming. "Nuclear power is an important factor for achieving carbon emission reductions in developed countries."

Though polls of attitudes show about 64 percent of the public favors nuclear power, there’s a "perception gap," Beller said. "They don’t feel bad about nuclear power, but they think other people do.

"We have a public political information problem," he said.

To close the "perception gap" and promote public awareness, the nuclear industry is reaching out through sponsorship of Indy car racing. "A part of our problem in the past has been that we don’t know how to communicate with the public," Beller said. "We have to try different ways to attract the public’s attention. We now know we can reach the public through nuclear industry sponsorship."

Nonetheless, to reassure the public the nuclear industry must still address issues of proliferation, spent fuel disposal and transportation. "Proliferation is a global issue and the International Atomic Energy Agency (based in Vienna, Austria) has to be a part of the solution," he said. "Strong infrastructures are needed to protect nuclear technologies and nuclear materials.

"Unfortunately, nuclear infrastructures, such as universities, research reactors and national labs, in the United States and Europe have declined in the last decade."

While the DOE is still trying to develop a repository for spent fuel, Beller said, "the transportation of spent fuel is safe."

Despite increases in government funding for research and development and a resurgence of nuclear energy, the industry faces formidable obstacles. "We need policies that level the playing field" and commitment to R&D funding "based on science and real potential.

"We need leadership to give the public the nuclear CARESS" — clean, affordable, reliable, environmental, safe and sustainable for the 21st century."