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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nuclear Energy, Part II

Mr. Tucker is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in several major national publications and in four of his books. His honors include the John Hancock Award, Gerald Loeb Award, Amos Tuck Award and Mencken Award for outstanding writing.

What are the potential problems with nuclear power?

First, some fear that a nuclear reactor might explode. But this is impossible.

Natural uranium is made of two isotopes – U-235 and U-238 (the latter having three more neutrons). Both are radioactive – meaning they are constantly breaking down into slightly smaller atoms – but only U-235 is fissile, meaning it will split almost in half with a much larger release of energy.

Because U-235 is more highly radioactive, it has almost all broken down already, so that it now makes up only 7/10ths of a percent of the world’s natural uranium. In order to set off a chain reaction, natural uranium must be enriched so that U-235 makes up a larger percentage.Reactor grade uranium – which will simmer enough to produce a little heat – is three percent U-235. In order to get a bomb grade uranium – the kind that will explode – uranium must be enriched to 90 percent U-235. Given this fact, there is simply no way that a reactor can explode.

On the other hand, a reactor can melt down. This is what happened at Three Mile Island. A valve stuck open and a series of mistakes led the operators to think the core was overflowing when it was actually short of cooling water. They further drained the core and about a third of the core melted from the excess heat.But did this result in a nuclear catastrophe? Hardly. The public was disconcerted because no one was sure what was happening. But in the end, the melted fuel stayed within the reactor vessel.Critics had predicted a “China syndrome” where the molten core would melt through the steel vessel, then through the concrete containment structure, then down into the earth where it would hit groundwater, causing a steam explosion that would spray radioactive material across a huge area.

In fact, the only radioactive debris was a puff of steam that emitted the same radiation as a single X-ray. Three Mile Island was an industrial accident. It bankrupted the utility, but no one was injured.

This of course was not the case in Chernobyl, where the Soviet designers didn’t even bother building a concrete containment structure around the vessel. Then in 1986, two teams of operators became involved in a tussle over use of the reactor and ended up overheating the core, which set fire to the carbon moderator that facilitates the chain reaction. (American reactors don’t use carbon moderators.)

The result was a four-day fire that spewed radioactive debris around the world. More fallout fell on Harrisburg, PA, from Chernobyl than from Three Mile Island. With proper construction, such a thing could never happen.

The United States currently gets 50 percent of its electricity from coal and 20 percent from nuclear reactors. Reversing these percentages should become a goal of both global warming advocates and anyone who wants to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil (the latter since a clean, expanded electrical grid could anchor a fleet of hydrogen or electric cars).

Contrary to what some critics charge, this would not require massive subsidies or direct intervention by the government. Indeed, the nuclear industry has gone through an astounding revival over the past decade.The entire fleet of 103 reactors is up and running 90 percent of the time.

Reactors are making money hand-over-fist – so much so that the attorney general of Connecticut recently proposed a windfall profits tax on them!

The industry is poised for new construction, with proposals for four new reactors submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and almost 30 waiting in the wings. The rest of the world is rapidly moving toward nuclear power. France, Russia and Japan are not only going ahead with their own nuclear programs, but selling their technology in the developing world. America, which once dominated this technology, is being left behind.

The main culprit is public fear. Nuclear technology is regarded as an illegitimate child of the atomic bomb, a Faustian bargain, a blasphemous tinkering with nature.

It is none of these. It is simply a natural outgrowth of our evolving understanding of the universe. The sun has been our prime source of energy throughout human history, but energy is also generated by the earth itself.

It is time to avail ourselves of this clean, safe terrestrial energy.

(Reproduced by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.)