Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End Americanís Energy Odyssey, William Tucker, Bartelby Press (2008) Review by William E. Morris
One of very few books I have found worth re-reading. It covers almost all forms of energy, and is practically an encyclopedia on nuclear power. It explains how and why Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents occurred. Also, how nuclear power is now operated dependably, safely and profitably without government help.
Tucker starts with "Global warming - hype or crisis." Predictably, from the subtitle, he ends with: "We are headed into unknown territory. That is why we must take climate change seriously." I agree with those words, but not that we must take 'man-made' climate change or 'near term' climate change seriously.
We certainly agree that "sustainable energy" has serious drawbacks. Tucker uses an interesting 100 pages to cover alternate energy sources and describe California's energy shortage. He summarizes the California problem succinctly: "Alternate and renewable energy sources cannot replace coal and nuclear as the base load of electric power."
Tucker provides an education on the status of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Then, he provides an encyclopedia on nuclear power, past, present, and future.
After Three Mile Island, utility executives organized the "Institute for Nuclear Power Operation" (INPO), a voluntary association of reactor owners that was given wide authority to enforce safety standards and supervise operator training programs. It became understood that problems at one nuclear reactor reflected on all of the others. The industry had followed the coal plant philosophy of "Run it until it breaks, then fix it". Changing to a preventive maintenance approach resulted in a huge increase in operating time from 60% to 90% (this helped cover the increase in electricity demand, but there is little room for additional improvement, so new capacity is needed).
Chapters on "Radiation", Waste and Proliferation" and "France and the Future" are the most interesting.
On radiation, average exposure of Americans is 350 millirems per year. If you lived on the property line of a nuclear reactor, you would be exposed to an additional 1 millirem per year. Can you spell "overkill"? It may seem paradoxical that people living where they are exposed to much more than 350 millirems are healthier than those who are exposed to much less than 350 millirems. This is attributed to a phenomenon called "Hormesis". A simple example would be harm from taking a hundred pills at once, but benefit from taking one pill. Tucker gives other examples. The point is that unnecessary cost is added to nuclear power to reduce low-level radiation that is actually beneficial.
In the U.S., the fissionable U235 is increased from 0.7% (with 99.3% U238) to3.3% for use in nuclear reactors (A far cry from the 95% needed to make a bomb). When the U235 drops to 0.8% after about three years, the fuel is spent, but highly radioactive. The spent rods are placed in a pool of water for several years to let the radioactive compounds decay. The fuel rods are then encased in concrete and stored on site where they could stay safely for over 50 years. However, a space problem can develop. The space problem could have been postponed for some time by the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, which has been shut down. The real solution is reprocessing as practiced by other countries. Read on.
"There is no such thing as nuclear waste," writes Tucker. With reprocessing, most of the material is re-used in a nuclear power plant and the minor radioactive compounds produced when the U235 is producing power, are used for medical treatments or medical research, as described in the chapter "France and the Future".
Why are we not reprocessing like France, Britain, Russia, Japan and Canada? That decision was made by President Carter, who was concerned that other countries might get hold of spent fuel and make a bomb. As it turns out, the spent fuel contains four Plutonium isotopes, extremely hard to separate.
Tucker visited France. The French nuclear company, AREVA, is building a reprocessing plant at the old Barnwell site in South Carolina and plans to build a $3 billion Uranium enrichment facility in Idaho Falls. I assume this was written in 2007 or earlier under the Bush presidency, and do not know where it stands under Obama, with Greenpeace et al ready to attempt to scuttle it.
In France, depleted fuel rods are shipped to LaHague where they are stored under water for up to 15 years; then Plutonium and Uranium are removed. The Plutonium is shipped to the Melox plant near Avignon. The Plutonium is mixed with scrap from Uranium enrichment. This mixed oxide fuel (MOX) has about the same radioactivity as enriched Uranium (3.3% U235) and is used to produce power.
In LaHague, after the rods are removed from the water pool, they are dissolved in nitric acid and then Uranium, Plutonium and other actinides are extracted with special solvents. Other actinides are used for medical diagnosis or treatment. What remains, including radioactive cesium and strontium, is dissolved in molten glass, put in a lead and steel container, and stored under the floor of a room the size of a big basketball court. The total was about 10 grams per French citizen in 2007.
How about the future? Tucker says it depends on public opinion, which looks favorable. Tucker quotes surveys showing 70% of Americans favor nuclear power. The number is 90% for those living with nuclear plants nearby. However, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and others have a lot of money and lawyers to intervene in the courts, as they did to stop nuclear power before.
Again, it depends on public opinion. It depends on us.