Nuclear energy is making a comeback and bringing its source mineral, uranium, with it. This turnaround is evident and gaining steam in scientific and political circles. But nowhere is the proliferation of pro-nuclear power forces raising more eyebrows than in the environmental community.
“The revival of nuclear energy in the United States and all over the world is already happening right now,” said William Magwood, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology.
Magwood said nuclear power, as recently as 1998, was a dead issue among national policy makers. But a fast forward to 2005 shows a renewed push to build new reactors in the United States, college students rushing to enroll in nuclear engineering programs and a burgeoning of international cooperation to develop new designs for next-generation nuclear power plants, he said.
On Capitol Hill, bringing more nuclear power into the nation’s energy mix is being touted as a terrific plan by Republicans seeking to pass a bipartisan energy bill.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a powerful nuclear ally, recently told members of the American Nuclear Society that he has been waiting for some time now to see if the United States would come to its senses and move ahead again with an energy source that is clearly clean, and taken in total, much safer than any other form of energy for producing electricity.
The United States, he said, finds itself becoming more and more dependent on imports of natural gas as well as oil. The country faces a clear dilemma, as there is no relationship more certain that the availability of electricity and material wealth — “they go together like day and night.”
Domenici said he gives a fuller explanation of his views in his new book: “A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy.”
Professional societies lining up behind pro-nuclear scientistsMeanwhile, professional societies are lining up behind growing numbers of scientists who say nuclear power is the only viable alternative energy to slow the world’s production of greenhouse gases and global warming.
The 120,000-member American Society of Mechanical Engineers, for example, recently endorsed nuclear power as a safe and efficient source for supplying America’s growing energy needs.
Proponents of nuclear power say a surge in the world’s population in the next 50 years from 6 billion to 9 billion people will put unprecedented strain on global energy resources. Today, two-thirds of the world’s people consume electricity produced by 440 nuclear reactors, which accounts for a 16 percent global share.
Expanding nuclear power generation is a strong, clean energy opportunity, they say.
Why? Because in contrast to the 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere yearly by fossil fuels, spent fuel from a comparable amount of nuclear energy would fit inside a two-story structure built on a basketball court, according to statistics compiled by the World Nuclear Association.
Some environmentalists favor nuclearBut a small group of environmentalists are attracting growing attention with their favorable stance on nuclear power.
Led by James Lovelock, Great Britain’s premier environmental scientist, Environmentalists for Nuclear is winning over more and more “Greens” and others to the merits of nuclear energy.
“We cannot continue drawing from fossil fuels and there is no chance that the ‘renewables’ — wind, tide and water power — can provide enough energy and in time,” said Lovelock, who authored the Gaia Theory — the idea that the Earth is one giant living organism that regulates itself in order to sustain life.
“If we had 50 years or more, we might make these our main sources. But we do not have 50 years. ... Even if we stop all fossil fuel burning immediately, the consequences of what we have already done will last for 1,000 years.”
Lovelock, along with many other environmentalists, believes that global warming not only exists but also the danger is imminent. He told members of the American Nuclear Society at its 2004 winter meeting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set up a test in 1990 — based on a rise in temperature beyond half a degree Celsius — to see if global warming is real. Panel members were surprised that temperatures climbed to that level in 1999 and that it only took nine years, Lovelock said.
“Should anyone doubt how bad things are, just look at the unprecedented heat wave in Europe in the summer of 2003,” he said. He noted that temperature soared five standard deviations beyond anything that had happened before.
“I regard that as the first real warning of much worse to come,” he said. Lovelock also said he fears that if nothing is done, the effects of global warming will become irreversible at some point during the 21st century.
Lovelock is not alone. Berol Robinson, a scientist from Johns Hopkins University and a member of Environmentalists for Nuclear’s board of directors, supports nuclear power as an alternative energy source because it’s “scientific and rational.”
While nuclear energy could easily generate a bigger share of the world’s electricity, Robinson said it won’t replace all forms of fossil energy “because it will not be easy to escape our dependence on oil for road transport.”
Major environmental groups oppose nuclearIronically, Environmentalists for Nuclear’s biggest critics, so far, have been other environmentalists.
Greenpeace and other groups such as The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth remain staunchly opposed to the spread of nuclear power generation.
Jim Riccio, a spokesman for Greenpeace in Washington, D.C., said Lovelock and Environmentalists for Nuclear are so concerned about global warming that they are grasping at any straw.
“We don’t believe nuclear reactors are viable despite the huge government largesse that supports them,” he said. “Not one nuclear reactor in this country has turned a profit.”
Riccio also said the public has done a good job of pointing out the foibles of the nuclear industry, and the current push in Congress will not result in more nuclear power plants being built.
When asked why uranium prices have climbed dramatically in recent months to the $21 range, Riccio said current demand for uranium, which fuels nuclear reactors, is not real. “It’s hypothetical demand,” he said.
Demand for uranium may be slow because the market is saturated with tons and tons of enriched uranium and plutonium in atomic weapons that world leaders pledged to scrap at the end of the Cold War, but Robinson said it is very real.
“A new commodity market is unlikely to develop until this stockpile is used up — only then will exploration and exploitation again becoming interesting,” he added.
Robinson: Environmental groups merchants of fearLovelock said most “Greens” have sucked themselves into a rather false and bad position of using fear of cancer to get support,” he said. “We all breathed in the dust of weapons testing in the 1960s. If the Greens had been even a fraction right, we should all be dying of much more cancer than we are. We are not. If anything, the (cancer) rate has dropped.”
Robinson said the leading environmental groups are “merchants of fear — fear of radioactivity itself, fear that plutonium production will lead to a proliferation of atomic weapons, fear that spent fuel elements (no matter how carefully disposed of) will eventually leak into the groundwater and “poison us all,” fear of a 9/11-like attack on a nuclear power station, and fear of another Chernobyl or even Three Mile Island-2.”
Any practical view of conservation requires a serious look at nuclear energy, he said.
Former congressman and longtime environmentalist Peter Kostmeyer agreed. “One can’t favor environmental protection and not acknowledge that nuclear energy is a big part of the picture,” said Kostmeyer, who is policy counselor for Zero Population Growth. “If governments are going to comply with clean air initiatives and the Kyoto Protocol, they will not be able to do it without nuclear energy.”
Domenici described Lovelock and others as “enlightened environmentalists.” He also cited the views of Hugh Montefiori, the former Bishop of Birmingham. The bishop wrote recently that as a theologian he believes it is mankind’s duty to do as much as it can to safeguard the future of the earth. “It is because of that commitment that I have come to the conclusion that the solution is to make more use of nuclear energy,” Montefiori noted.
For his pains, Montefiori was kicked off the board of directors of Friends of the Earth, Domenici added.