Reemergence of the Nuclear Option
May 10, 2001
Nuclear power is an energy option that until recently seemed doomed. But energy scarcity in California, and possibly New York this summer, coupled with fears that increasing use of fossil fuels will generate global warming, has led to a resurgence of interest in nuclear generation of electricity.
While a majority of Americans now say they approve of nuclear power, disposal of spent fuel seems to be the industry's premier public relations problem. The disposal debate is likely to move to center stage later this year when the scientists and engineers evaluating Yucca Mountain, north of Las Vegas, as a possible permanent waste repository expect to deliver their final report.
- But experts point out that all fuels produce waste -- even renewable sources such as wind and solar power release far more greenhouse gases across their life cycles than does a nuclear system of equivalent output.
- One ton of nuclear fuel produces energy equivalent to two million to three million tons of fossil fuel.
- Fossil fuel systems generate hundreds of thousands of metric tons of gaseous, particulate and solid wastes -- whereas nuclear systems produce less than 1,000 metric tons of high- and low-level waste per plant per year.
- The small volume of high-level nuclear waste produces means it can and is being effectively isolated and contained -- and since it loses radioactivity steadily, it is no more radioactive than high-grade uranium ore after 500 years.
The other risk that nuclear power supposedly raises is nuclear proliferation. But no nation has developed nuclear weapons using plutonium from spent power reactor fuel.
Source: Richard Rhodes, "Nuclear Power's New Day," New York Times, May 7, 2001.
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