On October 14, 2008, I watched CNBC’s premier of “The Nuclear Option”, a 35-40 minute video documentary about using nuclear fission as a power source. The show was squeezed into a 60 minute television time slot shared by many minutes worth of commercials, but that is par for the course and part of the cost that most people seem to be willing to accept in order to watch “free” television. (Oh yeah, this is supposed to be a blog about atomic energy, not a place to vent my frustration with the commercial television industry.)
Melissa Francis and her crew did a credible job – within the constraints of broadcast media – to tell America that nuclear power is a viable alternative with a proven track record that has often been distorted. She interviewed people like Mike Wallace of Unistar Nuclear, Patrick Moore of Greenspirit, Ward Sproat of the Department of Energy, Dale Klien of the NRC, the Mayor of Bay City Texas, Anne Lauvergeon of Areva, residents living within a few miles of Three Mile Island, and an assortment of plant workers who all share a belief that nuclear power is a clean, economical source of power that can provide predictable, controllable electricity and excellent long term employment.
She also showed that there are some stubborn characters like Jim Riccio and Edwin Lyman who have access to a different reality than most of us. I do not normally judge people by their hair styles or the way that they dress, but I cannot help being pleased that the chosen anti-nuclear spokesmen look the way that they do. With enemies like that, we might not need as many friends as we might think.
One of the more captivating segments was Melissa’s visit to the French plant where she learned that 96% of the fuel material that leaves reactors can be recycled back into new fuel. She seemed quite surprised to find out that just 4 meters of water covering the used fuel pool was enough to keep her safe while she gazed on the less than olympic sized pool of used fuel. She was practically giddy when she visited a room not much bigger than a high school gymnasium where the floor was the top of the storage location for the 4% of material that cannot be used for new fuel.
I would love to show you a clip of the few seconds when she learned that the total amount of that “waste” was roughly equal to the weight of a penny each year for each French citizen. Unfortunately, CNBC’s chosen video clip about nuclear fuel recycling does not include the seconds when Melissa said, “A penny per year. Really, is that all?”
The show producers did a good job of juxtaposing the story of France’s recycling program with the US policy of waiting to see if the NRC will issue a construction and operating license for Yucca Mountain. Unfortunately, CNBC chose to focus on Ward Sproat, the Department of Energy’s lead on Yucca Mountain. Mr. Sproat is a federal government employee who is required by his job position to provide a response that is in line with current law. He is not in a position to suggest effective technical solutions, he must tell reporters the plan that the US Legislative and Executive Branch wrote into legislation about 16 years ago.
During Melissa Francis’s chat with Ward Sproat about the US plan for waste, she made a rather unjustified comment about the waste “wandering” since most solutions other than Yucca Mountain are called “interim” storage. The reality is that nuclear waste does not move around looking for a home; it is safe where it is, it does not have a big impact on other activities on the site, and it does not cost much to monitor.
The word “interim” is supposed to be reassuring to people afraid that storage will become “permanent”. The safe period of interim storage can last decades to centuries without much work by human beings. For most of us, a storage system that can remain intact with little maintenance for hundreds of years and provides an acceptable level of safety is not really much of a problem. Of course, leaving well enough alone is also not much of a revenue generating opportunity for the companies that would love to be digging tunnels, building transportation systems, and providing services for moving the used material across the country.
Back to “The Nuclear Option”. In addition to the segment on recycling versus waste, I also liked the discussions with people who live near nuclear facilities like the South Texas Project, Calvert Cliffs, Three Mile Island and the new plant being constructed at Flamanville in France. For the residents interviewed, the nuclear plants are simply a part of their environment and a good source of local jobs and tax revenue. Most of them are somewhere between comfortable and excited about the new construction plans.
Another short segment that did a good job of contrasting the repetition of old position statements from Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists with actual facts was the discussion about the “terrorist” threat. I just wish that CNBC had included a visual with a cross-section of a containment vessel when the plant tour guide was talking about the four feet of concrete laced with 2 1/4″ steel reinforcing bar.
Seeing how a containment is constructed helps people to more fully understand why most nuclear trained people are not particularly worried about the crashing plane scenario that Edwin Lyman (UCS) thinks is a big deal. As NRC Chairman Dale Klein stated – the plane would probably just bounce off. Depending on the collision angle another possibility is that it would go splat, like a bug hitting a windshield. Remember this?
The show is worth watching, especially if you have a Tivo and can fast forward through the commercials. There are many exciting aspects of the technology that are not well covered, but that is okay; people will only pay attention for so long anyway.
Maybe the show will help average citizens worried about energy prices and the future availability of electricity to start chanting “build, baby, build”. Perhaps it is time for Americans to start asking the industry a pointed question when told that it will take 10 years to get the first plant up and running – “So, what are you waiting for?”
Update posted Oct 17, 2008 If you are interested in additional commentary about “Nuclear Option” visit NEI Nuclear Notes post titled The Nuclear Option – CNBC