By WILLIAM TUCKER WSJ.com 4/23/11
It's not easy being a supporter of nuclear energy these days. The events in Japan have confirmed many of the critics' worst predictions. We are way past Three Mile Island. It is not quite Chernobyl, but the possibilities of widespread radioactive contamination remain real.
Still, other energy technologies are not without risk. In 1944 a natural gas explosion in Cleveland leveled an entire neighborhood and killed 130 people. Yet we still pipe gas right into our homes. Coal mining killed 100,000 workers in the 20th century, and still kills an average of six a day in China, but we haven't given up coal. A hydroelectric dam collapsed in Japan during the earthquake, wiping away 1,800 homes and killing an undetermined number of people, yet nobody has paid much attention.
But talk about the risks of other energy sources really doesn't cut to the issue. The obvious question people are asking is, "Why do we have to mess with this nuclear stuff in the first place? Why do we have to risk these horrible accidents when other better technologies are available?" The answer is that there are no better alternatives available. If we are going to maintain our standard of living—or anything approximating it—without overwhelming the earth with pollution, we are going to have to master nuclear technology.
Consider: Uranium fuel rods sit in a reactor core for five years. During that time six ounces of their weight—six ounces!—will be completely transformed into energy. But the energy produced by that transformation will be enough to power a city the size of San Francisco for five years.
A coal plant must be fed by a 100-car freight train arriving every 30 hours. A nuclear reactor is refueled by a fleet of six trucks arriving once every two years. There are 283 coal mines in West Virginia and 449 in Kentucky. There are only 45 uranium mines in the entire world. Russia is offering to supply uranium to most of the developing world with the output from one mine. That is why the environmental impact of nuclear is infinitely smaller.
What about natural gas? Huge reservoirs of shale gas have been unlocked by hydrofracking. But "fracking" has been able to proceed so rapidly only because it has been exempted from federal regulations governing air and water pollution. Now that concern has arisen about damaged aquifers, natural gas production may slow as well.
So what about hydro, wind and solar? These energy sources will not bring about utopia. The only reason we don't object to the environmental effects of these renewables is because we haven't yet encountered them.
The amount of energy that can be derived from harnessing wind or water is about 15 orders of magnitude less than what can be derived from uranium. Thus a hydroelectric dam such as Hoover must back up a 250-square-mile reservoir (Lake Mead) in order to generate the same electricity produced by a reactor on one square mile.
Windmills require even more space, since air is less dense than water. Replacing just one of the two 1,000-megawatt reactors at Indian Point in Westchester County, N.Y., would require lining the Hudson River from New York to Albany with 45-story windmills one-quarter mile apart—and then they would generate electricity only about one-third of the time, when the wind is blowing.
Solar collectors must be built to the same scale. It would take 20 square miles of highly polished mirrors or photovoltaic cells to equal the output of one nuclear reactor—and then only when the sun shines. Such facilities may one day provide supplementary power or peaking output during hot summer afternoons, but they will never be able to supply the uninterrupted flow of electricity required by an industrial society.
It will be impossible to meet the consumer demands of a contemporary society without a reliable source of energy like nuclear. Other countries have already acknowledged this. There are 65 reactors under construction around the world (far safer and more advanced than the 30-year-old technology at Fukushima Daiichi), but none in the U.S.
The Russians' sale of uranium to the world comes with an offer to take back the "nuclear waste" and reprocess it into more fuel, at a profit. The Chinese have commercialized their first Integral Fast Breeder, a reactor that can burn any kind of "waste" and promises unlimited quantities of cheap energy.
We have become the world's predominant industrial power because our forebears were willing to take the risks and make the sacrifices necessary to develop new technologies—the steam engine, coal mining, electricity, automobiles, airplanes, electronics, space travel. If we are not willing to take this next set of risks, others will. Then the torch will be passed to another generation that is not our own and our children and grandchildren will live with the consequences.
Mr. Tucker is author of "Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Energy Odyssey" (Bartleby Press, 2010).