The Need for Nuclear Power

By Richard Rhodes and Denis Beller

Richard Rhodes is the author of
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun and other books.
Denis Beller is a Technical Staff Member at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

More Energy, Not Less

            By every humane measure, the world needs more energy. Energy multiplies human labor, increasing productivity. It builds and lights schools, purifies water, powers farm machinery, drives sewing machines and robot assemblers, stores and moves information. World population is increasing, passing six billion midway through 1999. Yet one third two billion people lack even electricity. Development depends on energy supply, and the alternative to development is suffering poverty, disease and premature death potentiating violence to force redistribution of material wealth. Beyond altruism, considerations of national security require developed nations to foster increasing energy production in their more populous developing counterparts. For safety as well as security, to meet unanticipated natural, ecological and technological challenges, that energy supply should come from diverse sources.

At a global level, the British Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering estimate in a 1999 report, we can expect our consumption of energy at least to double in the next 50 years and to grow by a factor of up to five in the next 100 years as the world population increases and as people seek to improve their standards of living. [Royal Society (1999), p. 3.] Even with vigorous conservation, world energy production would have to triple by 2050 to support one-third todays U.S. use per capita.[Wolfe (1996), p. 1.] The International Energy Agency (IEA) of the OECD projects 65 percent growth in world energy demand by 2020, two-thirds of that increase in developing countries, including China. But embedded in these inevitabilities is a potential double bind. Given the levels of consumption likely in future, the Royal organizations caution, it will be an immense challenge to meet the global demand for energy without unsustainable longterm damage to the environment. [Royal Society (1999), p. 3.] That damage includes air pollution, carbon pollution linked to global warming, and surface pollution and degradation from siting requirements and disposal of waste.

In order of percentage of supply, todays major world energy resources are petroleum (39.5%), coal (24.2%), natural gas (22.1%), hydroelectric power (6.9%) and nuclear power (6.3%). [EIA (1997).] Although petroleum and coal dominate, their market fraction began declining decades ago. [Marchetti (1987).] Natural gas and nuclear power have steadily increased their share. Contrary to the assertions of antinuclear organizations, nuclear power is neither dead, dying nor in decline. In the U.S. as well as globally, every category of its performance, safety and production has improved significantly since 1990, including a record unit capacity factor (the fraction of a power plants production capacity that is actually generated) for operating reactors worldwide in 1998, reduced radiation exposure to workers and reduced high-level and low-level waste per unit of energy. [Nuclear News Aug 99 and Nuclear Engineering International, Vol. 38, No. 2, June 1999, p. 22.] The average U.S. capacity factor in 1998 was 80 percent for about 100 reactors, compared to 58 percent in 1980 and 66 percent in 1990. [1980 and 1990, DOE/EIA Nuclear Power Plant Operations database; 1998, DOE data, net generation divided by capacity.] France generates 79 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, Belgium 60 percent, Sweden 42 percent, Switzerland 39 percent, Spain 37 percent, Japan 34 percent, the UK 21 percent, the U.S. (the largest producer of nuclear energy in the world) 19 percent. [Energy percentages: EIA (1997), p. 2; IAEA (1997), p. 12.] Despite a reduction in the number of units, the U.S. nuclear industry generated nine percent more nuclear electricity in 1999 than in 1998. [DOE/EIA Short Term Energy Outlook, August 1999.] Average production costs for nuclear energy are 1.91 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), while gas-fired electricity costs 3.38 cents per kWh. [NEI (1998).] South Korea and the PRC have announced ambitious plans to expand their nuclear power capabilities in the case of South Korea, by building sixteen new units, increasing capacity by more than 100 percent. With 420 operating reactors worldwide, nuclear power is alive and well and supplying a significant fraction of the worlds energy needs.

Because major, complex technologies require more than a half century to diffuse into global society, and no other open-ended energy technology approaches even one percent of world production, natural gas and nuclear power will dominate the next hundred years, though which will command the greater share remains to be determined. [Grubler, et al., (1999)] We believe this development is salutary. Increasing world demand will intensify issues of energy security, environmental protection and limiting global warming, and both sources of primary energy are cleaner and more secure than the historic fuels they have begun to replace. Environmentalists belatedly awakening from their infatuation with renewables should welcome the transition.

Proliferating Coal

Petroleum, todays dominant source of world primary energy, sustains transportation, putting it in a separate category; we will consider it later.

Among sources for electric power generation, coal is the worst environmental offender. Recent studies at the Harvard School of Public Health indicate that particulates from coal burning are responsible for about 15,000 premature deaths annually in the U.S. alone. [Wilson and Spengler (1996), p. 212.] To generate about a quarter of world primary energy, coal burning liberates a burden of toxic wastes too immense to bury in secure repositories. Such waste is either dispersed directly into the air or solidified and dumped or even mixed into construction materials. Besides noxious particulates, sulfur and nitrogen oxides (components of acid rain and smog), arsenic, mercury, cadmium, selenium, lead, boron, chromium, copper, fluorine, molybdenum, nickel, vanadium, zinc [Swaine (1990).], carbon monoxide and dioxide and other greenhouse gases, coal-fired power plants are also the major world source of radioactive releases to the environment. Uranium and thorium, mildly radioactive elements ubiquitous in the crust of the earth, are both released when coal is burned. Radioactive radon gas, a decay product of crustal uranium normally confined underground, is also released when coal is mined. A 1,000 megawatt-electric (MWe) coal-fired power plant releases into the environment about one hundred times as much radioactivity as a comparable nuclear plant. [Gabbard (1993), p. 7.] The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission actually investigated using coal as a source of uranium for nuclear weapons in the early 1950s when richer ores were believed to be in short supply; burning the coal, the AEC concluded, would concentrate the mineral, which could then be extracted from the resulting coal ash. [Lehman (1996), p. 20, citing Bisselle and Brown (1984).] Worldwide releases of uranium and thorium from coal burning total about 37,300 tonnes (metric tons) annually (the annual U.S. share of those releases is about 7,300 tonnes). [Alex Gabbard, personal communication.] More radioactive heavy metal is released into the environment every two years by coal burning than the total spent fuel waiting to be buried from all U.S. nuclear power production and most U.S. nuclear weapons production. [Calculated from Lehman (1996), p. 141.] Since uranium and thorium are potent nuclear fuels, burning coal also wastes more potential energy than it produces. [Gabbard (1993), p. 8.]

One potential and overlooked consequence of the concentration of fissionable and fertile [3] minerals by coal burning is nuclear proliferation. The uranium liberated by one 1,000 MWe coal plant in one year includes about 74 pounds of uranium-235 (U-235), enough for two or more atomic bombs. [74 pounds: Gabbard (1993), p. 6. Critical mass for a U235 sphere surrounded by a thick uranium tamper, 15 kg: King (1979), p. 7.] The uranium would have to be enriched, which can be complicated and expensive; an easier course to proliferation would be breeding plutonium (Pu) from coal-derived uranium or fissile U-233 from thorium. Because electric utilities are not high-profile facilities, writes Oak Ridge National Laboratory physicist Alex Gabbard, collection and processing of coal ash for recovery of mineralscan proceed without attracting outside attention, concern or intervention. Any country with coal-fired plants could collect combustion byproducts and amass sufficient nuclear weapons materials to build up a very powerful arsenal. [Gabbard (1993), p. 10.]

Nuclear utilities are required to invest in expensive systems designed to limit releases of radioactivity; efficiently recycling nuclear fuel was deferred indefinitely in the United States to set an example of nonproliferation, changing the economics of nuclear power development and creating a politically difficult waste disposal problem. If coal utilities were forced to assume similar externality costs, coal electricity would no longer be cheaper than nuclear.

The Decline and Fall of the Renewables

Renewable sources of energy hydroelectric [4] , solar, wind, geothermal and biomass have high capital investment requirements and significant, if usually unacknowledged, environmental consequences. For most renewables, the energy they collect is extremely dilute, requiring large areas of land and masses of collectors to concentrate. Manufacturing solar collectors, pouring concrete for fields of windmills, drowning square miles of land behind dams damages and pollutes.

Photovoltaic cells are large semiconductors; their processing produces a highly toxic waste stream of metals and solvents that requires special disposal technology. A 1,000 MWe solar electric plant using photovoltaics would generate 6,850 tonnes of hazardous waste over a thirty-year lifetime from metals finishing alone. A comparable solar thermal plant (mirrors focussed on a central tower) would require primary metals that would generate 435,000 tonnes of manufacturing waste, of which 16,300 tonnes would be contaminated with lead and chromium and considered hazardous. [Lehman (1996), pp. 53-54.] Decentralized solar systems of comparable capacity would use an equivalent volume of materials, but decentralization is hardly feasible for the megapolises of today and tomorrow. A global solar energy system would consume at least 20 percent of identified world iron resources. It would require a century to build and a substantial fraction of annual world iron production to maintain. The energy necessary to manufacture sufficient solar collectors to cover a half-million square miles of the earths surface and to deliver the electricity through long-distance transmission systems would itself add grievously to the global burden of pollution and greenhouse gas. [Cf. Weingart (1978).] A global solar energy system without fossil or nuclear backup would also be hostage to solar radiation reductions from volcanic events such as the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, which caused widespread crop failure during the year without a summer that followed. [Science 285 (5433): 1489 (3 Sept. 99)]

Wind farms, besides the waste stream resulting from manufacturing their millions of pounds of concrete and steel, their inefficiency, low (because intermittent) capacity and visual and noise pollution, are mighty slayers of birds. Several hundred birds of prey, including dozens of golden eagles, are killed every year by a single California wind farm; more eagles have been killed by wind turbines than were lost in the disastrous Exxon Valdez oil spill. The National Audubon Society has launched a campaign to save the California condor from a proposed wind farm to be built by Enron north of Los Angeles. A wind farm equivalent in output and capacity to a 1,000 MWe fossil or nuclear plant would occupy some 2,000 square miles of land, [Estimated from NEI (1999), p. 14 (quadruple 150,000 acres).] and even with substantial subsidies and uncharged pollution externalities would produce electricity at double or triple the cost of fossil fuels. [Bradley (1997), p. 8.] Hydroelectric power dams which submerge large areas of land, displace rural populations, change river ecology, kill fish and raise concerns of catastrophic failure has lost its environmental constituency in recent years. The U.S. Export-Import Bank was responding in part to environmental lobbying when it denied funding to the PRCs 18,000 MW Three Gorges project. [Bradley (1997), p. 21, citing the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.] At least one quarter of the world potential for hydropower has already been developed. Geothermal sources are inherently limited, and often coincide with scenic sites (such as Yellowstone National Park) that conservationists understandably desire to preserve.

Because of these and other disadvantages, organizations such as the World Energy Council and the IEA predict that hydroelectric generation will continue to account for no more than its present 6.9 percent share of world primary energy supply, while nonhydro renewables, even robustly subsidized, will move from their present 0.5 percent share to claim no more than 5 to 8 percent by 2020. [IAEA (1997), p. 10.] In the United States, which leads the world in renewable energy generation, utility renewable generation declined by 9.4 percent from 1997 to 1998: hydro decreased 9.2 percent, geothermal decreased 5.4 percent, wind decreased 50.5 percent, and solar decreased 27.7 percent. [Data from DOE/EIA database, Annual Utility Electric Production Report 1998.]

The vision of a world run on pristine energy generated from renewables which, like controlled thermonuclear fusion, recede as practical sources despite expensively subsidized R&D always twenty years down the road has romanticized a far less realistic technological exuberance among environmental activists than that of which they have long accused advocates of nuclear power. Along the way, the public investment in renewables might have been spent making coal plants and automobiles cleaner. The 1997 U.S. Federal R&D investment per thousand kilowatt-hours, for example, was only $0.05 for nuclear and coal, $0.58 for oil, $0.41 for gas but $4,769 for wind and $17,006 for photovoltaics. [EIA, cited in NEI (1999), p. 15.] While nuclear power avoided millions of tons of air pollutants and greenhouse gases, The $5.8 billion spent by the [U.S.] Department of Energy on wind and solar subsidies over the last 20 years is the financial equivalent of replacing between 5,000 and 10,000 MW of the nations dirtiest coal capacity with gas-fired combined-cycle units, which would have reduced carbon dioxide emissions between one-third and two-thirds, Robert L. Bradley, Jr., of Houstons Institute for Energy Research estimates. [Bradley (1997), p. 67, n. 305.] Replacing coal with nuclear generation would have reduced overall emissions even more. Conservation has also been heavily subsidized, making saved power twice as expensive in the U.S. as generated power. [Bradley (1997), citing the EIA.] Overall, by Bradleys estimate, U.S. conservation efforts and nonhydro renewables have benefitted from a cumulative twenty-year taxpayer investment of some $30-$40 billion, the largest governmental peacetime energy expenditure in U.S. history. [Bradley (1997), p. 4.]

Despite such investment, conservation and nonhydro renewables remain stubbornly uncompetitive and contribute only marginally to U.S. energy. If the most prosperous nation in the world cannot afford them, what nation can? Not the PRC, evidently, which expects to generate less than one percent of its commercial energy from nonhydro renewables by 2025, while increasing its installed nuclear capacity from 2.1 gigawatts today to 30 to 40 GW and its hydroelectric from 32 GW to 138 GW. But coal and oil will account for the bulk of the PRC energy supply in 2025 unless the example of the developed countries and suitable incentives convince that populous nation to change its plans. Such example has not been forthcoming: Chinese per capita CO2 emissions even burning much more coal and oil are expected to increase from 0.55 tonnes to 2.0 tonnes by 2025, which would still be only half the current level in the United States. For a projected PRC population of 1.5 billion, such an increase will nevertheless result in an additional 2.5 billion tonnes per year of CO2 by 2025, along with all the other accompanying emissions. [PRC estimates: Drennen and Erickson (1998).]

Volumes of Energy

Natural gas has many virtues as a fuel compared to coal or oil, and its increasing share of world primary energy across the first half of the 21st century is assured. But its supply is limited and unevenly distributed; it is expensive as a power source compared to coal or uranium; it has higher value as a feedstock for materials and as a substitute for petroleum in transportation, particularly for fuel cells; and it pollutes the air. Natural gas fires and explosions are significant risks and an uncounted externality. A single mile of gas pipeline three feet in diameter at 1,000 psi pressure contains the equivalent of two-thirds of a kiloton of explosive energy; a million miles of such large pipelines lace the earth. A 1,000 MWe natural gas plant releases 5.5 tonnes per day of sulfur oxides, 21 tonnes per day of nitrogen oxides, 1.6 tonnes per day of carbon monoxide and 0.9 tonnes per day of particulates. U.S. annual discharges in 1994 generating energy from natural gas totaled about 5.5 billion tonnes. [Lehman (1996), p. 32.]

The great advantage of nuclear power is its ability to wrest enormous energy from a small volume of fuel. Nuclear fission, transforming matter directly into energy, is several million times as energetic as chemical burning, which merely breaks chemical bonds. One tonne of nuclear fuel produces energy equivalent to two to three million tonnes of fossil fuel. [Suzuki (1993), cited in Lehman (1996), p. 138.] Burning 1 kilogram of firewood can generate 1 kilowatt hour of electricity; 1 kg of coal, 3 kWh; 1 kg of oil, 4 kWh. But 1 kg of uranium fuel in a modern lightwater reactor generates 400,000 kWh of electricity, and if that uranium is recycled for maximum burnup, 1 kg can generate more than 7,000,000 kWh. These spectacular differences in volume of fuel per unit of energy produced largely determine the differing environmental impacts of nuclear versus fossil fuels from mining or extraction, through transportation, to environmental releases and the disposal of waste. Generating 1,000 MW of electricity for a year requires 2,000 train cars of coal or 10 supertankers of oil, but only one 10 cubic-meter fuel assembly of uranium. [IAEA (1997), P. 32.] Out the other end of such fossil fuel plants even with abatement systems operating come thousands of tonnes of noxious gases, particulates and heavy-metal-bearing (and radioactive) ash plus solid hazardous waste: up to 500,000 tonnes of sulfur if coal, more than 300,000 tonnes if oil and 200,000 tonnes if natural gas. In contrast, a 1,000 MWe nuclear plant releases annually no noxious gases or other pollutants, [5] and trace radioactivity many times less per person than airline travel, a home smoke detector or a television set. It produces about 30 tonnes of high-level waste (spent fuel) and 800 tonnes of low- and intermediate-level waste about 20 cubic meters in all when compacted (roughly, the volume of two passenger cars). [6] [IAEA (1997), pp. 32-34.]

The high-level waste is intensely radioactive, of course (the low-level waste can be less radioactive than coal fly ash, which is used to make concrete and gypsum incorporated into building materials), but its small volume and the significant fact that it has not been released into the environment allow its meticulous sequestration behind multiple barriers. Toxic wastes from coal, dispersed across the landscape in coal smoke or buried near the surface, retain their toxicity forever. Radioactive nuclear waste decays steadily, losing 99 percent of its toxicity after 600 years well within the range of human experience with custody and maintenance, as evidenced by structures such as the Roman Pantheon and Notre Dame cathedral. Nuclear waste disposal is a political problem in the United States because of widespread nuclear fear disproportionate to the reality of relative risk, but it is not an engineering problem, as advanced projects in France, Sweden and Japan demonstrate. The World Health Organization has estimated that indoor and outdoor air pollution causes some three million deaths per year. [IAEA (1997), pp. 22-23.] Substituting small, sequestered volumes of nuclear waste for vast, dispersed volumes of toxic wastes from fossil fuels would be an improvement in public health so obvious that we are astonished that physicians throughout the world have not demanded such a conversion.

Nuclear electricity generated from existing U.S. plants is fully competitive with electricity from fossil fuels, but new nuclear power is somewhat more expensive. Large nuclear power plants require larger capital investments than comparable coal or gas plants. They do so because nuclear utilities are required to build and maintain costly systems to sequester their radioactivity from the environment. If fossil fuel plants were similarly required to sequester the pollutants they generate, they would cost significantly more than nuclear power plants do. The European Union has calculated externality costs for complete energy chains (mining, transportation, operation and disposal of waste). For equivalent amounts of energy generation, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) summarizes the EU calculations, the coal and oil plants assessed, owing to their large emissions and huge fuel and transport requirements, have the highest externality costs as well as equivalent lives lost. The external costs are some ten times higher than for a nuclear power plant and can be a significant fraction of generation costs. [IAEA (1997), p. 44.] Thus coal externalities, properly accounted, cost 15 Ecu per kWh; oil, 12; gas, 0.6; nuclear, 0.4. In equivalent lives lost per gigawatt generated annually (that is, loss of life expectancy from human exposure to pollutants), coal kills 37; oil, 32; gas, 2; nuclear, 1. [IAEA (1997), table 4, p. 44.] Compared to nuclear power, in other words, fossil fuels (and renewables) have enjoyed a free ride with respect to protection of the environment and public health and safety.

Even one annual equivalent life lost to nuclear power externalities is questionable, however. Such an estimate of loss of life expectancy depends on whether or not exposure to amounts of radiation considerably less than the natural radiation background less even than the normal variations in background encountered during airline travel or living at different altitudes increases the risk of cancer. Despite the longstanding linear no-threshold theory (LNT) that dictates elaborate and expensive confinement regimes for nuclear power operations and waste disposal, there is no evidence that low-level radiation exposure increases cancer risk and good evidence that it does not. There is even good evidence that exposure to low doses of radioactivity improves health and lengthens life, probably by stimulating the immune system much as vaccines do (the best study, of background radon levels in hundreds of thousands of homes in more than 90 percent of U.S. counties, found lung cancer rates decreasing significantly with increasing radon levels among both smokers and nonsmokers). [Cohen (1998b).] Based on this evidence, low-level radioactivity from nuclear power generation presents at worst a negligible risk. Authorities on coal geology and engineering make the same argument about low-level radioactivity from coal burning; a U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet, for example, concludes that radioactive elements in coal and fly ash should not be sources of alarm. [USGS (1997), p. 4.] But nuclear power development has been hobbled, and nuclear waste disposal unnecessarily delayed, by LNT-derived radioactivity limits not visited upon the coal industry.

Industrial accident the Chernobyl disaster in particular is another kind of risk which has generated disproportionate public concern. The Chernobyl explosion followed from a fundamentally faulty reactor design which could not have been licensed in the West. Locally it caused a human and environmental disaster, including 31 deaths, most from severe radiation exposure. Thyroid cancer, which could have been prevented with prompt iodine prophylaxis, has increased in Ukrainian children exposed to fallout. More than eight hundred cases have occurred, and several thousand are projected; although the disease is treatable, three children have died. LNT calculations (if credited) project 3,420 excess longterm cancer deaths in Chernobyl area residents and cleanup crews. [IAEA (1997), Table 1, p. 25.] No technological system is immune from accident, but these numbers for the worst possible nuclear power accident are remarkably low compared to major accidents in other industries. Recent dam failures in Italy and India each resulted in several thousand fatalities. Coal mine accidents, oil and gas industry fires and pipeline explosions typically kill hundreds per incident. The 1984 Bhopal chemical plant disaster caused some three thousand prompt deaths and severely damaged the health of several hundred thousand people. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1987 and 1996 there were more than 600,000 accidental releases of toxic chemicals in the U.S. that killed a total of 2,565 people and caused 22,949 injuries. [Cited in Grossman (1999).] The Chernobyl reactor lacked a containment structure, a fundamental safety system that is required on Western reactors. Post-accident calculations indicate that such a structure would have confined the explosion and thus the radioactivity, in which case no injuries or deaths would have occurred. [Cohen (1998)] More than forty years of commercial nuclear power operations demonstrate that nuclear power is much safer than fossil fuel systems in terms of industrial accidents, environmental damage, health effects and longterm risk.


Deferred Solutions

Most of the uranium in nuclear fuel assemblies is inert, a nonfissile product unavailable for energy generation. Reactor operation, however, breeds fissile plutonium and higher actinides in this uranium matrix in a 1,000 MWe nuclear power plant, about 0.2-0.3 tonnes per year, the energy equivalent of some 1 million tonnes of coal. Because plutonium is easier than U-235 to separate from natural uranium, the commercialization of nuclear power has raised concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter deferred indefinitely the recycling of nuclear spent fuel, citing proliferation risks, which effectively ended that development in the U.S. even though such recycling reduces the volume and radiotoxicity of nuclear waste and could extend nuclear fuel supplies for thousands of years. Other nations assessed proliferation risks differently, however, and the majority did not follow the U.S. example. France and the UK currently reprocess spent fuel; Russia is stockpiling fuel and separated Pu for jump-starting future fast-reactor fuel cycles; Japan has begun using recycled mixed-oxide (uranium and plutonium, MOX) fuel in its reactors. [Japan: Nuclear News, Aug. 99, p. 116.] Japans electric power development council also recently approved the construction of a new nuclear power plant to use 100-percent MOX fuel beginning in 2007. [Uranium Institute News Briefing 99.32, 4-10 Aug 99 ( nb/nb99/ latestnews.htm).]

Although power-reactor plutonium can theoretically be used to make nuclear explosives, spent fuel is refractory and highly radioactive, beyond the capacity of terrorists to process; weapons made from reactor-grade plutonium would be hot, unstable and of uncertain yield. No nation has chosen to follow this route to build a nuclear arsenal, nor is any likely to do so. Commercially viable [nuclear power] plantsare large and visible, comments former U.S. Undersecretary of Energy A. David Rossin. Their customers visit them. International inspectors verify their safeguards. It would be a treaty violation and a national disaster if any attempt were made to divert commercially separated plutonium. It would really be a huge risk, even for a desperate nation, to be caught in a diversion attempt before it could build a credible nuclear arsenal. [Rossin (n.d.), p. 13.] The risk of proliferation, the IAEA has concluded, is not zero and would not become zero even if nuclear power ceased to exist. It is a continually strengthened nonproliferation regime that will remain the cornerstone of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.[IAEA (1997), p. 30.]

Ironically, burying spent fuel without extracting its plutonium through reprocessing would actually increase the longterm risk of nuclear proliferation, since the intensely radioactive fission products that serve as a barrier to diversion (the spent fuel standard) decay significantly in a century or less, and the decay of the less fissile and more radioactive isotopes in spent fuel after one to three centuries improves the nuclear explosive properties of the Pu the spent fuel contains. Besides extending the worlds uranium resources almost indefinitely, a closed nuclear fuel cycle makes it possible to convert plutonium to useful energy while breaking it down into more short-lived, nonfissionable nuclear waste.

Hundreds of tons of weapons plutonium which cost the nuclear superpowers billions of dollars or rubles to produce have become military surplus in the past decade. Rather than bury some of this strategically threatening but energetically valuable material, as the U.S. has proposed, it also should be recycled into nuclear fuel. An integrated international fuel cycle management system would prevent covert proliferation. As envisioned by Edward D. Arthur, Paul T. Cunningham and Richard L. Wagner, Jr., of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, such a system would combine internationally monitored retrievable storage, processing of all separated plutonium into MOX fuel for power reactors and, in the longer term, advanced integrated materials-processing reactors that would receive, control and fission all fuel discharged from reactors throughout the world, generating electricity and reducing spent fuel to short-lived nuclear waste ready for permanent geologic storage. [Arthur et al. (1998).]

New Designs and Technologies

A new generation of small, modular power plants designed for inherent safety, proliferation resistance and ease of operation, manufactured rather than constructed and competitive with natural gas, will be necessary to extend the benefits of nuclear power to smaller developing countries that lack nuclear infrastructure. The U. S. DOE has awarded funding to three designs for such fourth-generation plants. A South African utility, Eskom, has announced plans to market a modular gas-cooled pebble-bed reactor with natural safety which does not require emergency core cooling systems and physically cannot melt down. Eskom estimates that the reactor will produce electricity at 1.4 cents per kWh, which is cheaper than electricity from a combined-cycle gas plant. [DOE: Magwood (1999), p. 4. South African utility: Kadak (1999a, 1999b).]

The internal combustion engine has been refined to its limit; further reductions in transportation pollution can only come from moving on from petroleum to develop nonpolluting power systems for cars and trucks. Recharging batteries for electric cars will simply transfer pollution from mobile to centralized sources unless the centralized source is nuclear. Fuel cells, which approach commercialization, may be a better solution. Because fuel cells generate electricity directly from gaseous or liquid fuels, they can be refueled along the way much as present internal combustion engines are. When operated on pure hydrogen, they produce only water as a waste product. Hydrogen can be generated from water using heat or electricity, suggesting an ultimate nonpolluting energy infrastructure of hydrogen for transportation generated by nuclear power, and nuclear electricity and process heat for everything else. Such a major commitment to nuclear power could not only halt but eventually even reverse the continuing buildup of anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere. In the meantime, fuel cells using natural gas could significantly reduce air pollution. Nuclear power can also supply process heat for desalinization, which could alleviate the water shortages predicted for the hotter and climatically changed decades to come.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy report proposes the formation of an international body funded by contributions from individual nations on the basis of GDP or total national energy consumption. The body would be a funding agency supporting research, development and demonstrators elsewhere, not a research center itself. Its budget might build to an annual level of some $25 billion, roughly one percent of the total global energy budget. [Royal Society and Royal Academy (1999), pp. 2-3.] We would encourage this body to focus on the nuclear option, on establishing a secure international nuclear fuel storage and reprocessing system and on providing expertise for siting, financing and licensing modular nuclear power systems for developing nations.

The share of final energy supplied by electricity is growing rapidly in most countries and worldwide, three analysts examining the dynamics of energy technologies reported in 1999. [Grbler et al. (1999), p. 265.] This development parallels the historic decarbonization of dominant fuels from coal (dominant from 1880 to 1950, with one hydrogen atom per carbon atom) to oil (dominant from 1950 to today, with two hydrogen atoms per carbon atom). Natural gas (four hydrogen to one carbon) is rapidly increasing its market share, but nuclear fission produces no carbon at all.

It is these facts of physical reality and common sense, not arguments about corporate greed, central versus distributed systems of power generation, hypothetical risks, radiation exposure or waste disposal that ought to support decisions vital to the future of the human world. Despite its outstanding record, nuclear power has instead been relegated by its opponents to the same twilight zone of contentious ideological conflict as abortion and evolution. It deserves better. It is environmentally ameliorative, practical and affordable. It is not the problem but one of the best solutions.


Arthur, E. D., Paul T. Cunningham and Richard L. Wagner, Jr. (1998). An architecture for nuclear energy in the 21st century. Santa Fe NM: Santa Fe Energy Seminar.

Bisselle, C. A., and R. D. Brown (1984). Radionuclides in U.S. Coals. MTR-83W234, Mitre Corporation for U.S. DOE Contract No. DE-Ac01-80ET13800. Cited in Lehman (1996).

Bradley, J., Robert L. (1997). Renewable energy: not cheap, not "green", Cato Institute. Cato Policy Analysis 280 (

Cohen, B. L. (1998a). Perspectives on the high level waste disposal problem. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 23(3): 193-203.

Cohen, B. L. (1998b). Validity of the linear no-threshold theory of radiation carcinogenesis at low doses. Uranium Institute Twenty-Third Annual International Symposium (10-11 September), London. (

Drennen, T. E., and Jon D. Erickson (1998). Who will fuel China? Science 279(6 March): 1483.

EIA (1997). International Energy Annual 1997 Overview. Department of Energy: ( ide/ overview.html).

Gabbard, A. (1993). Coal combustion: nuclear resource or danger? ORNL Review 26(3-4): 24-33.

Grossman, W.M. (1999). When publishing could mean perishing. Scientific American 281(3): 40.

Grbler, A., Nebojsa Nakicenovic and David G. Victor (1999). Dynamics of energy technology and global change. Energy Policy 27: 247-280.

IAEA (1997). Sustainable Development and Nuclear Power. Vienna, International Atomic Energy Agency.

IEA (1998). World Energy Outlook. Paris, OECD.

Kadak, A. C. (1999a). The comeback of gas reactors. Boston: American Nuclear Society Annual Meeting.

Kadak, A. C. (1999b). The American Nuclear Society's role in global climate change mitigation. Acapulco: International Joint Meeting "The Role of Nuclear Power to Mitigate Climate Change".

King, J. K., Ed. (1979). International Political Effects of the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. Washington, D.C., USGPO.

Lehman, L. L. (1996). Nuclear Fear: The Environmental Cost. Prior Lake MN, Technical & Regulatory Evaluations Group, Inc.

MacDougall, R. D. (1999). US nuclear power - can competition give it renewed life? Nuclear Engineering International(June): 34-37.

Magwood, W. D., IV (1999). Looking toward generation four: considerations for a new nuclear R&D agenda. American Nuclear Society 1999 Summer Meeting.

Marchetti, C. (1987). Fig. 7(a). Historical evolution of the primary energy mix for the world. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 32(4).

NEA (1998). Nuclear Power and Climate Change. Paris, OECD.

NEI (1998). Bullish on nuclears economics, AmerGen to buy Three Mile Island. Nuclear Energy Insight (August). Washington, D.C.: Nuclear Energy Institute.

NEI (1999). Meeting Our Clean Air Needs With Emission-Free Generation. Washington, Nuclear Energy Institute.

Rossin, A. D. (n.d.). Looking at the U.S. nuclear industry.

Royal Society and Royal Academy (1999). Nuclear energy--the future climate. (

Suzuki, A. (1993). The plutonium issue and the environmental problem. Proc. International Conference on Nuclear Waste Management and Environmental Remediation, Vol. 2. Prague, Czech Republic, September 5-11. Cited in Lehman (1996), p. 138.

Swaine, D. J. (1990). Trace Elements in Coal. London, Butterworth.

USGS (1997). Radioactive elements in coal and fly ash: abundance, forms, and environmental significance, U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet FS-163-97.

Weingart, J. M. (1978). The Helios strategy: an heretical view of the potential role of solar energy in the future of a small planet. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 12: 273-315.

Wilson, R., and John Spengler, Eds. (1996). Particles in Our Air: Concentrations and Health Effects. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press.

Wolfe, B. (1996). Why environmentalists should promote nuclear energy. Issues in Science and Technology, pp. 55-60. Summer.

[1] This essay appeared in edited form in Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2000.

[3] Thorium, while not itself fissionable, can be transmuted to fissionable U-233 in a nuclear reactor.

[4] Hydropower is not a true renewable, since dams eventually silt in.

[5] Uranium is refined and processed into fuel assemblies today using coal energy, which does of course release pollutants. If nuclear power were made available for process heat, or if fuel assemblies were recycled, this source of manufacturing pollution would be eliminated or greatly reduced.

[6] All the operating nuclear plants in the world produce some 3,000 cubic meters of waste annually. By comparison, all U.S. industrial operations generate annually about 50,000,000 cubic meters of solid toxic waste.