Lincoln Journal-Star

Local View
November 27, 1998

Clinton administration should support nuclear power

By Dennis R. Alexander

Our economic and environmental health depends on nuclear power, a source of clean electricity that provides one-fifth of the nation's power without producing acid rain, smog or greenhouse-gas emissions. Public opposition to nuclear power, led by environmental activists, is causing utilities to turn to fossil fuels, which in turn leads to rising levels of greenhouse gases and other pollutants from fossil-fuel power plants. Just the opposite of what the environmentalists claim to advocate!

For those who care about the future of the environment in America and the rest of the world, local environmental groups and political leaders need to take action and force the U.S. government into action on certain nuclear issues. For example, the Clinton administration refuses to meet federal legal obligations to take highly radioactive spent fuel that is piling up at nuclear power plants around the country. The administration has ignored a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that the Department of Energy must accept the waste, thereby leaving utilities and electricity consumers in a helpless situation.

For example, in Nebraska, more the 20 years of nuclear waste is still in temporary storage at Fort Calhoun and Cooper nuclear plants. Never mind that electricity consumers in the state have paid more that $150 million into the Federal Nuclear Waste Fund since 1983. Certainly, the government has a responsibility to do better that just pocket the money. The low-level waste storage facility in Nebraska is no longer a real issue and South Carolina will now take most of this waste and Nebraska will see additional money flow from the state instead of into the state.

Mindful that many utilities are running out of spent fuel storage space, Congress has voted to establish a centralized interim facility in the Nevada desert where the nuclear waste can be stored safely away from population centers until a permanent underground repository is ready. But the Clinton administration, threatening a veto to override the measure, stands in the way.

Instead of supporting a solution to the nuclear waste problem, the current administration has been silent, while anti-nuclear activists attempt to frighten people with claims that transporting spent fuel to Nevada would be extremely dangerous. Such claims are baseless and the following facts substantiate this.

Independent studies have verified that, over the past 30 years, the nuclear industry has transported high-level radioactive materials with absolute safety. Since the late 1950s, more than 2,400 shipments of spent fuel have been made in the United States, and thousands more have been made in other countries under the same regulations. Not one of these shipments has ever been involved in an accident that caused the release of radioactive materials. The reason: Steel casks holding the spent-fuel rods are built to withstand the most severe accidents.

If nuclear plants are forced to shut down prematurely in the face of economic pressures aggravated by the spent-fuel standoff, the trend toward greater use of fossil fuels in electricity production will speed up, pushing greenhouse emissions ever higher.

This cannot be tolerated in a time of ever-increasing global warming trends attributed to increasing attributed to increasing emissions of carbon dioxide. The Energy Information Administration, data-collecting arm of the Department of Energy, has warned that 24 nuclear plants might close prematurely, reducing U.S. nuclear capacity from approximately 100,000 megawatts to about half that by 2020. Carbon emissions would rise to 45 percent above the 1990 level.

Keep in mind that the Clinton administration approved a global warming treaty last December that commits the U.S. to reducing greenhouse emissions to 7 percent below the 1990 level in a little over 12 years' time. It is difficult to see, therefore, how carbon emissions can be reduced if there is less nuclear power instead of more.

In addition, far greater quantities of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides will be spewed into the atmosphere -- not a comforting thought at a time when health authorities estimate that almost 100,000 Americans a year are dying prematurely from air pollution.

Since abandoning nuclear power is neither desirable nor feasible, both from an environmental and global warming point of view or an economic point of view. Congress should demonstrate that it's serious about putting an end to the waste charade. It should pass legislation to create a storage facility for nuclear waste in Nevada -- and do so by a veto-proof margin.

Environmental groups applaud technologies that reduce air pollution. Yet nuclear power has never received credit under the Clean Air Act for reducing emission of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that would otherwise spew from the smokestacks of fossil-fuel plants. Congress should correct this oversight by allowing utilities to receive tradable credits for nuclear power. This would lift the value of nuclear plants and help ensure their continued operation in a competitive, restructured electricity industry where we cannot tolerate the ever-increasing environmental pollution from increased use of coal. This is even more true when one looks at the alternatives for energy in developing countries.

Anyone who questions nuclear power's importance in the years ahead should consider that utilities in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia have submitted applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep nuclear plants operating beyond their original 40-year licensing period. To rely on wind power rather than nuclear power, one utility calculated, would mean building enough windmills to cover 400 square miles. Hydropower? that would require flooding 2,600 miles. Solar power? Still far too expensive.

Nuclear power's crucial contributions to clear air should not be overlooked. Nuclear power is the only proven technology for assuring that global warming can be brought under control. Nationally, this means that the construction of a central storage facility for spent fuel be completed without delay so that local utilities can continue to provide power without damaging the current air quality by turning to ever-increasing use of fossil fuels.

Dennis R. Alexander is professor or electrical engineering in the College of Engineering and Technology at the university of Nebraska-Lincoln