There is a good discussion on the Scientific American blog – SciAm Observations – titled The Nuclear Option. As you might expect, I had to put in my two bucks worth and ended up writing more than I intended. Here is the comment that I added to the discussion, just in case you do not get around to scrolling down to comment number 20 in what will probably be a pretty long list.
Deutch and Moniz delivered a well written, well supported article that understates the vast potential that nuclear fission has for contributing to human prosperity. Like Randal Leavitt, I believe that our goal should be to apply all of our scientific knowledge to improving the human condition. There are many studies that show that increased energy use correlates rather well to increased wealth, comfort and resilience to natural disasters. Fission is the newest and potentially largest source of energy available for human control, and it just happens to be clean enough to run inside a sealed submarine.
There was a time in the US that was not so long ago when we had more than 50 large nuclear plants under construction at the same time. Even though many projects ordered in the 1970s got cancelled – for reasons beyond the scope of this comment – we managed to enough plants to provide almost 800 gigawatts of energy each year in a period of about 20 years. (See – U. S. Nuclear Generation of Electricity).
That effort began when we knew next to nothing about building and operating large nuclear facilities; it had been only 15 years since the very basic physical phenomenon of sustained nuclear fission had been discovered! At the same time, we were building hundreds of propulsion reactors for large ships, aircraft carriers and submarines. We could have been building them for commercial ships, but ADM Rickover was a selfish control freak who thought that he was the only person in the world that could effectively operate a nuclear power infrastructure.
We know a lot more now than we did then, and the competitive alternatives that can provide reliable, predictable, economic power are in much shorter supply than they were then. Since that exciting period in the 1960s and 1970s, we have spent thirty years consuming ever larger quantities of the coal, oil, and natural gas that was built up over millions of years in reasonably accessible locations in the earth’s crust.
Storing used nuclear fuel in above ground pools and dry storage containers is a well proven, safe means of handling the material. NO ONE has ever been killed by exposure to “deadly” radioactive waste from a commercial nuclear power plant!
Though it is not a final solution, above ground storage is reasonably easy and inexpensive. It provides numerous options for the future. In 50, 100 or 200 years, the then cooler material could be processed, buried, or simply reused. It does not even take up much physical space; the average power plant in the US only produces enough used fuel each year to fill about three containers that are 14 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter.
Yucca Mountain is an extremely costly way to approach non problem, but if it is used, it can store a HECK of a lot more than 70,000 metric tons. That is a politically imposed “capacity” that is used to enable antinuclear people to make scary statements about how many repositories that we will need. According to a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute, the planned fuel repository has a physical capacity of as much as 628,000 tons http://neinuclearnotes.blogspot.com/2006/04/epri-study-yucca-mountain-could-hold.html
The only rational explanation that I can determine for putting nuclear fission on the bottom of any energy options list is that the person making the list has a sneaking desire to keep things the way they are, with coal, oil and natural gas providing the majority of human controllable energy. There are only two explanations for that kind of attitude – a desire to keep people who have no current access to reliable energy in poverty or a desire to continue making massive quantities of cash by selling those products.
Have a great day. Time for the long commute to my day job. I certainly wish my employer would follow its own telecommuting policy!