Nuclear Reactions

Although the worst has arguably passed at Fukushima, the dangers posed by Japan’s recent nuclear disaster have not yet passed. As the world watched with bated breath, a catastrophic nuclear meltdown was closely averted, but only by pouring tons of seawater into the reactors and hoping for the best.  Recently, aftershocks of magnitudes reaching 7.1 threatened to destabilize the nuclear reactors and create fissures in the containment, releasing toxic water in the surrounding environs.  The worst may be over, but the story hardly ends here.

The economic costs and the loss of human life in the Tohoku region are immense. But the fallout from this disaster extends far beyond Japan’s borders.   In the wake of the catastrophe, a number of countries have begun to re-evaluate their own nuclear energy policies.  Germany has shut down seven of its oldest nuclear energy facilities.  Adinarayana Gopalakrishnan, who once led India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, has said, “In view of the vast nuclear devastation we are observing in Japan, I would strongly urge the [Indian] government not to proceed with the Jaitapur [Nuclear Power Plant] project…” Closer to home, many Americans are expressing similar misgivings about their own nuclear power facilities. Given the recent disaster, these misgivings are understandable. But to discard nuclear energy entirely would be to let impulse and fear override empirical evidence. Certainly, there are precautions to be taken with the use of nuclear energy. As it now stands though, nuclear energy remains one of the safest and renewable energy sources available. And to let existing qualms stand in the way of nuclear adoption and deeper research would be a travesty in a world increasingly uncertain about its energy future.


Alternative energy sources are crucial to the needs of a rapidly developing world economy. Traditional, non-renewable energy sources, including fossil fuels, simply cannot sustain the levels of consumption we as a have now reached.  Such an assertion should come as a surprise to no one. But the sad political reality within many countries today seems to ignore this fact. Most of the energy produced in the US is derived from fossil fuels, but the future cannot realistically rest on the premise of a never-ending supply.  Beyond their shrinking availability, fossil fuels are notorious for the pollution they release into the atmosphere. But these challenges have not impeded the advocates of fossil fuels. Many have instead conducted new research into ways to mitigate the polluting effects of fossil fuel use.  While these efforts are encouraging, they should not be viewed as a substitute for pursuing energy sources with greater promise for the future.

Although there are certainly legitimate concerns about using nuclear energy, it is an alternative with great potential and depths to be plumbed.  The US uses nuclear energy for twenty percecnt of its electricity.  With over 800 net megawatt-hours, it is the country with the most nuclear energy capacity. This is commendable, but the country should take note of its peers.  Eighty percent of France’s electricity is generated through nuclear energy—400 net megawatt-hours in a country one-fifth of the US’s size.

Perhaps the most obvious argument in favor of going nuclear is the amount of pollution averted through the use of nuclear energy as opposed to fossil fuels.  Even given the relatively small portion of power generated by nuclear energy in the US, the reduced levels of pollution are striking. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “US emissions of [sulfur dioxide] and [nitrogen oxide] would have been 2 million tons and 560,000 tons higher, respectively, if fossil fuels had generated the electricity produced by America’s 104 nuclear power plants.”  The production of these gases is monitored and capped by the Environmental Protection Agency because high levels are potentially harmful to human health.  But despite the obvious benefits, serious questions remain about the viability of nuclear power. Among the most pertinent are those concerning the storage of nuclear waste.

Currently,  steps are being taken to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of improperly managed nuclear waste.  Nuclear facilities in the U.S. are operating under what the Nuclear Energy Institute calls an “integrated management approach.”  Spent nuclear fuel, of relatively low radioactivity, is stored in the plants themselves.  The waste is currently being stored in seventy different sites across the U.S.  But once the used fuel is recycled, the radioactivity level rises considerably.  The U.S. has not yet recycled any of its fuel, but it plans to store the highly radioactive recycled waste in deep geologic repositories.  In 2008, the NRC submitted a license application for the repository to be located at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.  While acceptance is still pending, other approaches are being explored.

The number of energy scientists making advances in the field of nuclear energy should be cause for hope. As part of the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative has been working on various projects to increase the efficiency and safety of nuclear power plants.  These projects include, to name a few, the Next Generation Nuclear Plant, which focuses on new design and analysis methods; the Supercritical Water-cooled Reactor, which tests the possibility of using a Light Water Reactor to produce low-cost electricity; separation, which will aid in spent fuel treatment processes; and transmutation science engineering, which explores the possibility of using long-lived, highly radioactive elements (such as plutonium) in fission processes.  Also, creating as much isolation as possible and choosing strategically located waste repositories will go a long way in ensuring the safety of Americans.  This is indeed the intention of the Yucca Mountain repository, but it has not yet been used.   In the meantime, the various storage facilities around the country are not all in ideal locations.  Of most concern to New Yorkers is the Indian Point facility, thirty miles north of the city.

For better or for worse, the uncertainties over nuclear energy do not end here. In an age when terrorism ranks as one of the top national concerns, a number of analysts view nuclear energy sites as potential security threats. Other unpredictable catastrophes —and the Japan disaster is a case in point—remain.  Referring to the situation in Japan, Nils J. Diaz, former leader of the NRC has said that “a comprehensive nuclear power plant safety program developed in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks would have prevented a similar accident at any of the nation’s nuclear facilities.”  Despite Mr. Diaz’s assurances, many fear the potential vulnerability, viewing nuclear power plants as prime targets for the arbitrary forces of terrorist attacks.  As a Western nuclear executive noted to the New York Times in response to the volatile situation in Japan, “It’s a little like pulling a thread out of your tie.  Any breach gets bigger.”  The idea that a nuclear disaster could spin out of control very quickly and become something too big to handle is alarming for experts and civilians alike, but simply dwelling on the hypothetical short-term crisis instead of on the long-term solutions is not a fair assessment of nuclear energy.  The United States Energy Information Administration states that the risk of widespread contamination and radioactivity due to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction is “very small due to the diverse and redundant barriers and numerous safety systems at nuclear power plants, the training and skills of the reactor operators, testing and maintenance activities, and the regulatory requirements and oversight.”  The criticisms of nuclear energy should be given consideration in any discussion of our planet’s energy future.  Acknowledgement of such concerns could indeed prevent a future energy disaster.  But the fact remains that fossil fuel usage, regardless of strategies to limit its environmental impact, remains a short-term solution.  Nuclear energy is a possibility for the long-term.

In order to realize this possibility, nuclear energy needs to be supported through scientific research, and, more importantly, through public policy.  While this always comes as unwelcome news, additional funds must be allocated to nuclear energy research.  In the recent congressional budget battle, the Republican Party had initially proposed a seventy percent cut in clean energy spending —which would strike a serious blow to the potential of nuclear energy in the short-term. While that measure did not pass, it raises questions about the contingency of science upon congressional majorities.  The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard reported on April 14,“By pushing so hard for restrictions on the EPA, Republicans made it clear that they view the climate issue as a political winner—red meat for their right-wing base and corporate donors alike.”  Politicization of the future of nuclear energy is perhaps inevitable due to funding concerns, but, given the need for an alternative to fossil fuel use, the rejection of nuclear energy as a viable option is cause for serious concern.  The Republicans may see the rejection of nuclear energy as a leveraging tool, simply a way to garner votes, but to deny the issue the seriousness it deserves is to jeopardize the long-term viability of our energy-reliant society.

And while it is crucial that new strategies be researched, we must not forget our existing plants. Outdated machinery, technology and security measures demand our immediate attention.  The aging and obsolescence of nuclear plants and their various components happens inevitably, and there are always choices to be made as to when parts should be replaced or updated.  Not everything needs to happen at once, but the government should have a progression of refurbishments on the agenda.  Among other areas of improvement, the World Nuclear Association notes that “older reactors have analogue instrument and control systems, and a question must be faced regarding whether these are replaced with digital in a major mid-life overhaul, or simply maintained.”  Maintenance is fine, but it should be accompanied by a calculated intention of replacement.

While these steps must be taken to encourage the expansion and improvement of the nuclear industry, they should not obscure the deeper underlying contradiction of our energy-dependent society.   We are living in an age of limits, one that cannot possibly sustain over-consumption and unbounded luxury.  According to the EIA, despite federal energy efficiency standards that have reduced the amount of energy required to run a given appliance, recent decades have witnessed the entrance of a glut of such appliances into American households, offsetting any gains made by the new standards.  For example, “The number of US households grew by 34.5 million from 1978 to 2009.  The share of households that have central air conditioning nearly tripled.”  The sobering reality is that while nuclear energy should be exploited, not even innovation can keep up with American lifestyles.  Finding alternative energy sources is certainly one side of the equation, but on the other side, civilians must play their part and re-examine their consumption habits. Often lost in these energy debates is the question of how to reduce our energy use while we make existing use greener. The difficult reality is that today’s energy troubles can be solved by neither reduced consumption nor nuclear adoption alone. A concerted policy that combines the two efforts is our only viable option.