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Nuclear power Generation: A ticking time bomb

Published March 19. 2011 09:00AM

The nuclear event in Japan made me think of how ridiculous our government's emphasis on nuclear energy is. Our government has been campaigning against oil, coal, and natural gas while encouraging new nuclear plants. The events in Japan demonstrate that multiple failsafe mechanisms can and will fail causing a nuclear disaster. The recent failures were as unthinkable as the sinking of the Titanic. Engineers are not gods and their creations are subject to the forces of nature and to terrorist events.

The government tells me that incandescent bulbs are bad but fluorescent bulbs containing mercury are safe (as long as you follow a lengthy procedure to get rid of the mercury should you break the bulb). They tell me that gasoline cars are ruining the environment and that hybrid cars that contain hundreds of pounds of batteries are safe (as long as you recycle the hazardous metals contained in the batteries). They also tell me that coal-fired and gas-fired electric plants are polluting even though we have installed scrubbers and other mechanisms to remove the pollutants from the stack gases. Nuclear in their minds is safe, proving that they are full of cow dung. We now know that nuclear plants will melt down given the right circumstances and endanger those who live near the plants and those downwind hundreds and maybe even thousands of miles away. Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986) and now Fukushima are proof that nuclear accidents can and do occur despite all of the safety features.

I decided to do a little research on nuclear waste in preparation for this article. In the United States alone there are 70,000 tons of nuclear waste sitting in temporary storage pools or dry casks. The spent nuclear waste is growing at the rate of 2,000 tons per year. Above ground dry casks are used to store waste when the storage pools reach capacity. The dry casks are steel cylinders containing the fuel rods and an inert gas. They may be stored in the nuclear plant or outside the reactor at independent spent fuel storage locations. Casks are surrounded by steel or concrete to contain the radiation. I could not find any safety information on the dry cask storage method, however I did find that a document from the government that stated: "Over the last 20 years, there have been no radiation releases which have affected the public." Note that this is carefully worded. It does not say there were no radiation releases; rather it states that there were no releases that affected the public.

There are three storage sites in Pennsylvania for spent fuel. These are located in Limerick, Susquehanna and Peach Bottom. ( html). There are between 55 and 100 publicly disclosed storage sites (depending on the data you view) in the United States either at existing nuclear plants or spent fuel storage locations. We do not know how many secret sites exist for the disposal of nuclear weapons, or other defense-related nuclear material. I believe that these sites pose a serious risk should there be an accidental or intentional (terrorist) incident. The temporary storage sites are required because the government reneged on an agreement to build a safe permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

In 1982, the federal government passed legislation placing a .1-cent per kilowatt surcharge on consumer utility bills to pay for the safe disposition of nuclear waste. This amounted to a $750 million annual tax on the public and the utilities. The government signed contracts to accept waste starting in 1998, but never completed the facility. Congress selected a site and funded construction at Yucca Mountain. This project was canceled by the Obama administration in 2009 even though $13.5 billion was already invested in the project. As a result 70,000 tons of nuclear waste is dispersed throughout the country in temporary storage facilities. There is always a risk of a breach in the facilities or that terrorists could use this material for low-level nuclear weapons called dirty bombs. I'm sure the government would down play these risks, however I am not comfortable having three major temporary storage facilities right here in Pennsylvania.

Twenty new nuclear plants will be built in the United States by 2030. This will only add to the waste issue as Congress has yet to fund a replacement for Yucca Mountain, even though they continue to collect the tax for this purpose. In my opinion, nuclear energy, which provides around 30 percent of our electricity, is not as safe as other alternatives. We have over 284 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves. The Marcellus shale gas in our own state ensures many lifetimes of supply of this cheap and safe fuel. We also have 250 billion tons of proven coal reserves, enough for the next 250 years. Natural gas and clean coal electrical generation is a far safer and cheaper alternative to nuclear plants. The likelihood of an accident at a nuclear plant is very low, however the environmental impact of an accident is very high indeed. This factor alone makes nuclear a bad alternative given our supplies of cheap gas and coal. I am a firm believer in alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric plants. At our house, we installed enough solar power to meet all of our energy needs. We actually produce more than we need and transfer our surplus to the electrical grid. As costs come down, I expect more houses will create their own energy. Dow Chemical has a new product, Powerhouse Solar Shingles, that can be installed on every home. Products such as these shingles will be common in new construction in several years. Solar panels, both free standing and on roofs, as well as windmills in back yards, will proliferate as energy costs go up and alternative generation costs go down. As more of us become energy self sufficient, the need for nuclear plants will disappear. Instead we will need plants that can be started on demand and turned off quickly when not needed (called fast cycling plants). These plants are powered by safe, clean, natural gas.

Nuclear plants are ticking time bombs. There is no need to build them given safer and cheaper alternatives. God has blessed our country with abundant sources of cheap energy. Let's use it while we transition to alternative energy sources that are safer than nuclear power without the hazardous nuclear waste.

© 2011 Gordon Smith All Rights Reserved.

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