When all factors are considered, nuclear energy could prove to lead the future of electricity generation in North Carolina and around the world. Already, industry analysts are referring to heightened interests in nuclear power since 2001 as a “nuclear renaissance”, after a 30-year gap in nuclear power plant construction in the United States. While current events such as the ongoing Fukushima I & II disaster in Japan have seen nuclear power on a downward trend, rising costs of fuel and heightened concern for carbon emissions as well as increasing electricity demands will soon see a spike in demand for power that is both relatively clean and high in capacity.
To put it mildly, sustainable electrical generation is a controversial issue; in North Carolina, in the United States, and around the world. The old standbys of coal and oil are increasingly insufficient and their perception of pollution and waste is increasingly intolerable in the eyes of the public. Yet, newer forms of energy are either too costly in terms of operation (measured in cost per kilowatt-hour or megawatt-hour) or too small-scale to provide an area the size of a state or nation with significant amounts of electricity. Of all the technology feasible today and in the near future, only nuclear power can significantly address both concerns with overutilization of resources and concerns with underproduction of energy. Nuclear power is far from perfect, however, and significant obstacles remain between the present and a nuclear economy. Additionally, public perception of nuclear power is often incorrect and fearing, leading to reluctance to adopt the technology (19). But most of those obstacles are either based on misperception or are challenges that can be overcome with modern science.
To begin with, nuclear power plants operate on a basic level much like conventional resource-consuming power plants, such as coal or oil plants. Uranium is the primary ingredient in most fission reactors. Of interest to today’s nuclear reactors is Uranium-235, which is readily fissionable, and Uranium-233, which is artificially produced by some nuclear reactions and does not occur in nature. Technically, this makes nuclear fission a nonrenewable resource just like coal or oil (1), and the world output is expected to hit Peak Uranium within one to two generations – eleven nations have in fact already passed national Peak Uranium (2). But nuclear power has several advantages that offset its status as a nonrenewable non-abundant fuel. Unlike fossil fuels, which are wholly reduced to a useless state when consumed, nuclear fuel can be economically reprocessed back into a usable material. Although this process still involves waste, it is considerably more efficient than whole consumption of the resource and could extend the usefulness of the resource several generations.
A special type of nuclear reactor is capable of producing more fissionable material than it consumes. These reactors, known as “breeder” reactors, are not yet economically viable on a large scale, with only two commercially successful reactors online currently. A lack of interest in research halted their development in the 1970s, as their operating costs and high research requirements were not competitive with contemporary light-water reactors (3). But renewed interest and research is bringing the question of breeder reactors back into the mainstream. It’s a common misconception that breeder reactors gain “something for nothing,” violating a basic law of economics by producing what they consume. In reality, most breeder reactors produce fissionable material (usually Plutonium-239), but they produce it from Uranium-238, a non-fissionable isotope of uranium. This is referred to as enrichment. While it is not economically viable yet to feed nuclear reactors with other nuclear reactors, it is a matter of great interest to the industry as new technologies promise to make this safer and more affordable.
Another benefit to uranium is the location of production. Much like oil, a high amount of the world’s production is made in a select few countries – 94%, in fact, is exported by ten countries (4). But unlike oil, which is concentrated in a few areas for geological reasons, uranium is found worldwide. Oil also has significant social and political issues in the areas where it is abundant, especially the Middle East. Slightly over half of the world’s uranium is produced by Canada and Australia (4), with almost all of the rest being found in the United States, Russia, and parts of Africa. There are also “unconventional” deposits of uranium that can, in theory, be harvested in other locations. Phosphate mines and oil shales contain uranium, and there are ongoing experiments with harvesting uranium from seawater (5).
Finally, uranium is not the only source of nuclear fuel. Thorium, a material found in great abundance relative to uranium, can also be used (6). India leads the world in thorium reactor development, having already passed national Peak Uranium. India enjoys large reserves of readily mined thorium. However, thorium reactors require uranium as part of the reaction, as thorium is not fissionable by itself. But this could extend the life of uranium reserves by hundreds of years or longer, and is being looked at as a possible future of nuclear energy. (7) Because of these, uranium enjoys many of the benefits of a renewable resource despite being technically nonrenewable.
Of course, the availability of uranium is not the only problem facing nuclear power. Public perception is arguably the largest problem facing nuclear power today. The anti-nuclear movement grew out of the anti-war movement of the 1950s and 60s, and the environmentalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Two nuclear power plant disasters, the 1979 Three Mile Island incident and the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster, effectively froze interest in nuclear power in the West (8). A new incident, Fukushima I, threatens to do so again, through a mixture of fear, unique circumstances, and misperceptions.
Three Mile Island was the first of these three incidents, and the one with the most impact in the United States. Early in the morning on March 28th, one of the plant’s reactors unexpectedly shut down during a routine maintenance. Safety overrides immediately shut the nuclear reaction down by inserting control rods. But when a nuclear power plant shuts down, it continues to produce heat from nuclear decay, necessitating the use of coolant systems (9). Pressure is regulated within a reactor to prevent adverse effects on the nuclear reaction, and in the absence of normal operation safety valves automatically open to prevent a high pressure buildup (9). A stuck valve and a series of human and mechanical errors ultimately necessitated a controlled leak of hydrogen and radioactive gasses into the atmosphere to prevent an explosion. Most of the reactor core had melted, but the containment vessel was not breached. Almost all of the vented radiation was in the form of noble gasses, which dissipated harmlessly. The TMI incident occurred just days after the release of The China Syndrome, a movie depicting a nuclear reactor meltdown, and the timing along with a voluntary (and unnecessary) evacuation of the surrounding area is believed to have contributed to an ensuing hysteria. In reality, the residents of the nearby town were exposed to, on average, as much radiation as an ordinary chest x-ray (10, 11). The only significant health risks were the mental health effects of stress (12). A 2000 review of the data found statistically insignificant increases of cancer rates a decade after the incident (13). Regardless, no new nuclear power plants began construction after the incident, which is generally regarded as the worst nuclear disaster in American history.
The worst nuclear disaster in history was the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion. On April 21, 1986, the number four reactor at CNPP suffered a dramatic increase in power during a systems test due to operator error, leading to a violent explosion in the core. The moderator used in the reaction combusted when exposed to air, and radioactive smoke drifted across large swaths of the Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Russia. Much of Europe was affected by fallout (14). Radiation connected to Chernobyl was even recorded as far away as Canada (15). 28 to 31 people (sources vary) died on the day of the explosion due to radiation exposure, including firemen and police officers on the scene. The Chernobyl disaster marks the only time that a disaster in a commercial nuclear power plant directly (re: due to explosion or direct radiation exposure, not including cancer, hysteria, or suicide) caused deaths. Compounding the issue was the state’s censorship of the disaster, with the nearby city of Pripyat being kept in the dark for over 36 hours despite the fact that the explosion and radioactive plume was visible to the naked eye. Thousands suffered thyroid cancers from the released materials and almost a million people were displaced. People still live in radioactive areas and consume food grown there despite the danger (16); and other people illegally enter the Zone primarily for thrill seeking, looting, or hunting for artifacts (17) in spite of the danger of radioactive emissions from CNPP.
The most current event, the one threatening to kill the “Nuclear Renaissance,” is the ongoing Fukushima I disaster in Japan. It has a rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale of 7, the maximum. Only Fukushima I and Chernobyl NPP have ever attained that level (18). Unlike TMI and CNPP, the Fukushima I disaster was caused by an external event – the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The tsunami wave overwhelmed the sea wall around the plant, flooding the entire plant and causing damage to cooling systems. Three reactors were on-line at the time, and all three subsequently suffered partial meltdowns, explosions, fires and even probable, but unconfirmed runaway nuclear reactions (26) in at least one of the cores and in the spent fuel storage pools. Much of the damage and leakage has not yet been ascertained due to the high radiation levels preventing workers from reaching the sites. What is known is that strongly radioactive materials have been discovered in the surrounding area (18), prompting a ban on local foods, a massive evacuation, and fears of having a Chernobyl-like “Zone” in previously densely populated areas. But mixed reports, popular misunderstanding, and conflicting and frequently erroneous media reports have created a panic out of what is a serious, but not dire nor global issue. Overenthusiastic reporting of the disaster was more prominent in the United States, where coverage of the nuclear issue outweighed coverage of the earthquake and tsunami disaster itself. The overcoverage even caused a spike in the demand of iodine (an antiradiation medicine) on the western seaboard despite the lack of ill effects crossing the Pacific Ocean (19).
Many people fear that this sort of event could happen at any power plant, and the “Chernobyl waiting to happen” stigma is something the nuclear power industry struggles with to this day. Some people even fear that a nuclear plant could detonate in a nuclear-bomb style explosion in cases of extreme failure. This is not possible – in fact, it violates the laws of physics. A nuclear power plant cannot under any circumstances trigger a nuclear detonation even though it is true that the same process (atomic fission) powers both nuclear plants and nuclear bombs (21). It is also impossible for modern nuclear reactors to explode and contaminate the area like Chernobyl did, for several reasons. (22) – primary among them is that the same type of explosion literally cannot physically occur in Western designs, and no reactor in any Western country lacks a containment vessel like CNPP’s did. Even a Three Mile Island-type incident is very unlikely, as valuable lessons in both engineering and in crisis management were learned and applied after that incident. Nuclear plants are required to have multiple redundant safety measures, and new plants exercise a design philosophy known as “Passive Safety.” (23) What that means is, whenever a nuclear plant exceeds the specifications of normal operations, a plant with passive safety measures automatically slows down the nuclear reaction, rather than speeding it up. This is done through simple and well-understood principles of physics, meaning that no failure of mechanical or human origin can stop the safety mechanism from functioning. Simply put, problems like TMI, Chernobyl, and even Fukushima could not happen with new power plant designs. Worth noting is that the only reason the Fukushima I disaster happened at all was the tsunami, not any inherent flaw in the reactor.
Regardless of their safety, even those who are in favor of nuclear power tend to have a “Not in my backyard” view of them. Like prisons and landfills, even people who agree that they are necessary want them to be built somewhere else. Technically speaking, a nuclear power plant does emit some radiation naturally, and living next to one exposes you to about 0.01 mSv annually during normal operation. To put that into perspective, the average resident inside the contaminated zone around Three Mile Island was exposed to about 0.08 mSv over the course of the accident, but the human body emits about 0.4 mSv per year, dwarfing both figures. (24) Yes, the human body is 40 times more radioactive than the area around a nuclear power plant. The average background radiation that all humans absorb from cosmic rays and naturally radioactive rock under the ground is about 2.4 mSv per year (25). Just living in the mountains increases our radiation exposure, due to the slightly thinner atmosphere (and thus exposure to stellar and cosmic radiation), more than living near a nuclear plant does (24). And finally, living next to a coal power plant exposes you to triple the amount of radiation as does a nuclear plant (24). Clearly, anyone that has ever trusted their life to conventional forms of electricity should have no issue with the astronomically tiny risk of a nuclear plant, either in the course of normal operation or the risk of nuclear disaster.
Nuclear reactors do not contribute to global climate change, nor do they put out hazardous materials or chemicals other than nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is the great unsolved problem in nuclear energy – if a nuclear power plant gets a “Not in my backyard reaction,” the toxic waste gets considerably worse. The issue stems from the long half-lives of some forms of waste, which can last tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and the difficulty of cleaning up radioactive leakages. The US Government had plans to store waste in the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, but those plans were recently put on permanent hold (27). Every state bitterly fights to have the waste stored in another site. Currently, nuclear waste is typically stored on-site at nuclear reactors in the United States, although there are still plans to construct underground “vaults” in geologically stable areas. This would allow the radioactive waste to remain secure for indefinite periods without contamination of the surrounding area. Unlike pollution from traditional power plants, nuclear waste is extremely strictly controlled as a matter of national security, and burying it in a single repository is an attractive option due to making this dangerous material inaccessible. The other issue with having massive repositories is transportation – currently, radioactive waste is transported in massive concrete casks by trucks and trains. Many people are afraid that these casks might be released into heavily populated areas as a result of a collision or terrorist activity – however, these casks are built to survive any foreseeable impact, explosion, or fire, and can survive being hit by a train, terrorist attack, sustained 1500F fire or being thrown off cliffs without leaking (28, 29). Thus, nuclear waste, while extremely toxic and radioactive, is generally safe in the United States when regulations are adhered to.
Despite these assurances, the negative public image remains. “Nuclear waste” still conjures images of Superfund sites and men in full protective gear, while “Nuclear power” still carries connotations of Cold War-era experimentation and weaponization. Public misunderstanding and radiophobia continue to maintain high levels of public hostility to nuclear energy. Clearly, defenses and precautions against the downfalls of nuclear energy are not enough. But, with increasing public interest in moving beyond fossil fuels, and new technologies increasing the safety and decreasing the costs, nuclear energy is finally moving past its military origins and colored past. As older nuclear power plants begin to reach their mandated decommissioning date, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from remedial electrical generation is expected to rise significantly to compensate (30).
While recent enthusiasm has dampened in the wake of the Fukushima I crisis (31), there is still great interest in nuclear power’s unique qualities. Unlike oil, it can be produced locally largely using technology and resources from America and allied countries. Unlike coal, it is clean, does not pollute the atmosphere, and uranium mining is not as widespread or damaging to ecosystems as coal mining, although uranium and thorium production does confer some environmental costs nonetheless. Unlike solar or wind, a nuclear plant produces several orders of magnitude more electricity per site and unlike other renewable energy resources, nuclear power is a well-understood technology that is readily available without expensive research and development. Additionally, environmentalist groups are at most mixed about nuclear energy, while they stand firmly against fossil fuels. Finally, while nuclear power has extremely high startup costs, the operation costs per kilowatt-hour are significantly lower, among the cheapest forms of electricity production available. Nuclear energy holds some advantage over every major form of electricity production, and manages to hold interest despite its flaws and detractors.
The last two presidents (31, 32) have been very friendly to nuclear energy, with President Obama stating that he “continues to support the expansion of nuclear power in the United States, despite the crisis in Japan” (31). For the first time since Three Mile Island, plans in the United States to build new nuclear plants are under serious consideration in a dozen sites; with two each in Georgia and Florida already having government approval. China has 25 nuclear plants under construction, with plans for more (33). Russia additionally has plans to construct 10 new nuclear plants.
The future of nuclear power could go either way. On the one hand, public hostility and fear could bury the programs forever, assuring they never get the level of interest that less efficient, more costly, but more cheerful subjects do. On the other hand, the future of technology in the industry shows great promise, as a new generation (34) of nuclear technology is on the horizon, promising increased safety, more resistance to nuclear-materials proliferation, minimal waste and lessened resource consumption, and decreased costs (34). These reactors can produce upwards of 200 times as much energy for the same amount of nuclear fuel, the ability to use existing nuclear waste as fuel, and new nuclear waste that lasts decades as opposed to millennia. They also promise to reduce the other of nuclear energy’s primary concerns, the heavy use of water and thermal pollution. In the US, most nuclear power plants draw water from artificial lakes, which can be costly in drought conditions. Those plants that draw water from rivers and natural lakes output a lot of heat, significantly changing the local environment by warming the water – although this is sometime touted as a benefit by local communities who enjoy recreational swimming in mid-winter! (36) Worth noting is that while the thermal output can change the local environment, the use of local water for cooling does not output radiation, a common misunderstanding. And while the heat can change the local environment, advocates say that it doesn’t necessarily harm it, as the zone of thermal anomaly is too small to affect the ecosystem and many fish species seem to prefer the warmer waters for reproduction (36, 37). Regardless of the current costs or benefits, future reactors promise to lower their already-admirable environmental impact to almost nothing, leading many mainstream environmentalist groups to embrace it as a true form of sustainable energy.
Between the immense rewards of a nuclear economy and the diminished societal and environmental impact, nuclear power can, and should, be a serious consideration in the ongoing debate of supplying the future’s energy needs. Coal is popular in North Carolina, but nuclear energy is cleaner, safer, less radioactive, and in the long run considerably cheaper than the old or the new. Those obstacles that we do face can be readily tackled with technology and expertise we already have, or simply with greater education and public understanding. It is, of course, not enough to perfectly satisfy all demand, but it is both proven and readily available and could quite easily replace coal as the predominant source of electricity for the entire state.