As concern over global warming grows, environmental stewardship faces a near-term choice of evils—more coal-fired or more nuclear power plants—to meet growing electricity demand. A panel of experts discussed the viability of more nuclear generation at a March 17 talk sponsored by the Virginia Environmental Law Forum and Virginia Law Democrats titled “Has the Time for Nuclear Power Come (Again)?” Speakers included Rick Parrish, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center (formerly counsel for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), Chandler Van Orman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Dave Lochbaum, who spoke on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
If reducing air pollution and the use of fossil fuels is the goal, nuclear generation has clear advantages, said Van Orman, who also introduced the notion that electrical generation needs to grow by 50 percent to meet projected demand.
About two-thirds of electricity is generated from coal- and oil-fired plants, which give off millions of tons of carbon dioxide (the cause of global warming), sulphur dioxide (which returns to earth as acid rain) and nitrogen dioxide every year. Without existing nuclear generation, Van Orman said, carbon emissions would go up by 700 million tons per year, sulphur emissions would rise by 31 percent, and nitrogen emissions by 29 percent. Nuclear plants account for 32 percent of electricity used in the southern states. Those states now have 18.7 million cars operating in them, he said, and if nuclear plants were to close, the pollution consequence would be the equivalent of more than doubling the numbers of cars operating: an additional 22.7 million more. “The nuclear fleet contributes to clean air,” he said.
Furthermore, if 13 existing plants in the South could be “up-rated,”and the Browns Ferry plant in Tennessee (closed because of a fire) were restarted, they could each generate an additional 2.3 megawatts of power with no increase in pollution. Van Orman cited remarks by James Lovelock, a prominent environmentalist and the founder of GAIA, who last May said, “We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear—the one safe, available, energy source—now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.” Finland is building its fifth reactor to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, the Chinese plan to build 50 reactors, Sweden recently dropped its deadline for closing reactors because no substitute energy source could be found, and other European countries as well as Canada have reopened possibilities for nuclear generation, he concluded.
“There are some environmental advantages to nuclear,” conceded Parrish. “Some at the SELC think nuclear plants are necessary for the next 20 years. The SELC has not taken a position pro or con.” But the organization is opposing the possibility of expansion of Dominion Virginia Power’s plant at North Anna, he said, “because we think it’s an inappropriate site for water reasons.”
He also acknowledged that “the nuclear industry has been relatively successful in operating without cataclysmic accidents” since cooling system failures at the Three Mile Island plant in the Pennsylvania led to a near-meltdown. That event brought expansion of the nuclear industry to a halt and no new licenses have been issued since then.
But the accident is not so much responsible for that as industry economics, Parrish said. “Nuclear power now is not economical,” and business realities are what keeps the industry in check.
The second persistent problem is the matter of how to dispose of radioactive wastes. “We still don’t know what to do with it,” Parrish said. “We’ll have to create a sacrifice zone that would be off limits to human activity for the rest of history. Of course we can’t design something that would be safe for hundreds of thousands of years. This begs the issue of why we pursue this idea. It doesn’t make sense to produce more of this material.”
Parrish was also distressed by the arrangement that has the nuclear industry monitor itself. “The NRC simply doesn’t have the staff to oversee the building and operation of plants. We rely on self-reporting by the industry.” He then cited the case of a whistleblower who revealed in 1998 that the “Zimmer” plant outside Cincinnati had been keeping fraudulent records, a discovery that forced the plant to be shut down. Similarly, he said, billions of dollars were forfeit when the Shoreham reactor on Long Island, ready to be used, had to be abandoned after officials admitted that there is no way to evacuate the Island in the event of an emergency.
Nuclear power has few advantages, said Parrish, circling back to the present bind. “Environmentalists are not going to embrace coal,” he agreed. He called for more attention to improving conservation and efficiency, better lighting and insulation. “We squander what we use.” Solar and wind power are “barely tapped.”
Lochbaum agreed that the nuclear industry’s safety record is generally satisfactory, but any accident could have consequences too bad to tolerate. “We’re not consistently doing things right. We need to do a better job of policing the bad performers.” He said he worried that, as with the space shuttle disasters, potential problems would not be fixed until after they had actually caused an accident. “The American public will be very skeptical after the next accident if they discover that there was a long list of things known of in advance that could have been done.”
He said alternative sources such as wind and solar power hold more potential and could contribute more significantly to energy needs if the government pushed for research spending in the same way it promoted nuclear power in the 1950s.
Audience members called into question the prediction that America
needs a 50 percent hike in electricity supply and asserted that the
nuclear power industry survives on government subsidies.