By: Don Gillispie
You don't have to look far beyond the recent news to see the dangers and costs of the energy we depend upon. The last year has brought fatal oil rig explosions, massive spills and coal mining tragedies have killed miners and polluted streams. Meanwhile, searing heat and fires in Russia, catastrophic floods in Pakistan, and the long-running Australian drought are glimpses of the troubled future we might face from climate change if we keep spewing emissions from fossil fuels into the Earth's atmosphere.
Sure, it would be ideal if we could replace oil, gas and coal with renewable energy, but it's not going to happen for decades, if ever. As Germany has discovered with wind and Spain with solar, renewable sources of power are still hugely expensive with capital costs, maintenance costs and land requirements that far exceed any other method that produces equivalent amounts of power.
However, an even bigger problem is reliability, as renewables only work between 10 to 20 percent of the time (when the wind blows or the sun shines). That makes it fiendishly difficult to balance supply and demand as these sources cycle off and on randomly, thus destabilizing the electrical grid.
So what's left? The answer is obvious: Nuclear power.
Compared to everything else, nuclear is the slam-dunk winner. Not only do nukes produce safe, clean and inexpensive electricity, they are also a solution to another one of the world's problems—clean water—because they are the best source of power for desalination plants.
Don't just take my word for it. Converts to nuclear power include Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, alternative energy crusader and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stuart Brand, and Democratic Colorado Senator Mark Udall.
"For some, news that Udall is speaking favorably about nuclear power will come as a stark – and perhaps unpleasant – surprise," Udall said in a speech last year. "But I also believe public and expert opinion on the risks and benefits of nuclear power has changed."
Unfortunately, what hasn't changed is the perception that nuclear plants are dangerous, that they're too expensive and they suffer from an insolvable problem of waste disposal – all wrong.
Take safety for example. Opponents point to the Chernobyl disaster and the Three Mile Island incident to argue that nukes are unsafe, but Chernobyl was an old, primitive design that couldn't be licensed in the western world and TMI was actually a good-news story.
If the workers had just gone home and let the plant handle the situation automatically, the incident would never have happened. Instead, inadequately trained workers made mistakes and the plant still took care of itself. In the wake of TMI, the industry established its own organization, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), to evaluate plants, train workers, and achieve high levels of safety and reliability.
In fact, the country's 104 reactors have the best safety record of any industry. There's never been a single death or injury from radiation – in stark contrast to the tragedies from coal mining, oil drilling and hydro-dam breaks.
New reactor designs are even safer; but again, don't take my word for it. "For more than 30 years, nuclear plants have delivered about 20 percent of America's electrical power safely and securely, without major incident," wrote former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman in a recent editorial.
Even if nukes are safe, aren't they too expensive? Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis at Vermont Law School's Institute for Energy and Environment, is one of many critics who peg the cost of a single standard-sized new nuclear power plant at $10 billion or more. At that price, electricity from the plant would cost at least 16 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). That's far higher than the 2-5 cent cost of coal power, which will rise to 10 cents or more with tougher coming emissions standards. It's higher than the widely quoted figures of 8-10 cents for wind or 12-18 cents for big solar thermal plants.
Nonsense. First of all, one of the big untold stories is that renewables are much more expensive than these figures indicate. The capital costs of building 1700 megawatts (MW) worth of wind or large-scale solar—the size of one nuclear plant—are more than $10 billion, but the renewables only operate a fraction of the time, so the cost per MW actually delivered soars. The real price of wind is more like 16 cents per kWh and solar is more than 20 cents.
Second, the price of nuclear plants is far lower than critics like Cooper estimate. My company is on track to build not one, but two, 1700 MW plants in Idaho for $9 - $10 billion. One reason: competition is lowering the capital cost. The resulting power would cost 4-5 cents per kWh. That means nuclear power could easily take over from low cost coal, the biggest single contributor to global warming and it's a huge bargain compared to wind and solar.
The benefits would be huge. If we truly embrace nuclear power, the industry can easily produce enough electricity to charge millions of electric cars, slashing demand for imported oil—and the emissions from burning oil and gasoline.
The last obstacle is concern over spent fuel, especially now that plans to bury waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain have been shelved. No problem. First of all, the spent fuel now piling up at nuclear sites around the country still contains 95% of its original energy. The NRC recently concluded the spent fuel could be safely stored at nuclear plants for up to 60 years past the plant's life expectancy or more than 100 years. Instead of letting it pile up, we should reprocess and reuse it, dramatically reducing both the need for new uranium fuel and the amount of spent fuel. And after the fuel is reprocessed and reused, it's less dangerous. What's left is medium-level waste with radioactive half-lives of hundreds of years instead of thousands. That waste could be put safely in Yucca Mountain.
Nukes have other compelling benefits, too. A nuclear reactor is an enormous heat engine. The waste heat can be harnessed to evaporate saltwater or contaminated water, creating pure drinking water. That's just what we need as the world begins to face a global water crisis. Demand for clean water is expected to climb 40% by 2025, when water will be more valuable than oil. Plunk a nuclear reactor next to the sea or estuary and, in addition to electricity, the plant can make enough clean water for a million people.
Building new nuclear power plants is the obvious answer to our energy problems. They would also provide a major boost to our economy, creating tens of thousands of high paying jobs. What are we waiting for?
A 45-year veteran of the nuclear industry, Don Gillispie was involved in the construction and operation of a number of nuclear reactors and helped start the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). He is now CEO of Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. in Eagle, Idaho.
About Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. (http://www.aehipower.com) -- Alternate Energy Holdings develops and markets innovative clean energy sources. The company is the nation's only independent nuclear power plant developer seeking to build new power plants in multiple non-nuclear states. Other projects include Energy Neutral(TM), which removes energy demands from homes and businesses (http://www.EnergyNeutralinc.com) Colorado Energy Park (nuclear and solar generation), and Green World Water(TM), which assists developing countries with nuclear reactors for power generation (http://www.GreenWorld-H2O.com), production of potable water and other suitable applications. AEHI China, headquartered in Beijing, develops joint ventures to produce nuclear plant components and consults on nuclear power.
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