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Nuclear offers an abundant source of power

By Ron McCarley • Nov 1, 2015 at 9:00 AM

People around the world have an innate fear of nuclear power. The fears began with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan in World War II, then with accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima. A 2008 report by the United Nations placed the total number of global deaths from nuclear accidents at 64.

While these deaths are regrettable, they are also very small in relation to deaths from other causes. Automobile accident fatalities in the United Sates alone number about 32,000 per year,and 1.24 million globally in 2010. Yet no one takes much notice at those numbers, probably because driving is considered an economic necessity.

We really need to begin thinking of nuclear power in much the same way — that is, a necessity rather than an evil. There’s nothing in this world devised by man that is totally safe, yet not one person in the United States has been killed in a nuclear accident. It’s a testament to our care and safety regulations.

If one looks to the future of energy and the need for it, nothing comes remotely close to providing the energy and concentrated power of nuclear. Untapped fossil fuel reserves are believed to be no more than a few hundred years, while uranium reserves have been estimated to be in the tens of thousands of years. Scientific American estimated that we have some 30,000 to 60,000 years of uranium reserves left.

Worldwide demand for power is increasing at twice the rate of installation. Traditional fossil reserves are going to be depleted faster and faster. In the future, if you’ve banked on any energy source besides nuclear, your future is going to be very dark indeed.

Uranium is relatively abundant in the Earth, as much as tin and zinc. Moreover, it is also found in seawater. But what distinguishes it from other sources of energy is its capacity factor, or ability to provide lots of electricity very efficiently.

Nothing — not natural gas, wind, solar, hydroelectric, coal or geothermal — comes anywhere close to matching nuclear’s 91 percent efficiency of power output.

If you’re one who thinks that we’ll get our future energy from something else, like wind or solar, you’ve got a big surprise in store for you. Aside from their intermittency, their efficiencies are terrible, in the 27 to 33 percent range.

Wind turbines with a supposed design life of 20-25 years are failing at 5-7 years, and the Danes assume an average life of 11 years. Nuclear power plants, on the other hand, have a life of about 60 years.

A very major, probably insurmountable, problem for wind and solar is that they require power from traditional power sources in their assembly and construction, and after installation they often draw power from the grid to maintain them.

No one will ever see 100 percent renewable energy from wind or solar. If we did, society would be living in what has been called the “pre-modern past.” Many of your modern conveniences would then be a thing of the past.

If anyone should have an irrational fear of nuclear, it would be the Japanese. But nuclear power plants aren’t the same as an atomic bomb. With the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, where a tsunami struck their nuclear power plant, some European countries like Germany and Great Britain abandoned their nuclear plants.

They’re now experiencing real power problems. But the Japanese have recently re-opened two of those reactors (Sendai 1 and 2), because they can’t afford to keep importing their fuel supplies.

What I find interesting is the fact that there are 13 European countries that generate 30 percent or more of their power from nuclear. France leads with 76.9 percent, Slovakia has 56.8 percent, Hungary has 53 percent, Ukraine has 49.4 percent and Belgium has 47.5 percent nuclear.

Totaled, Europe has over 200 nuclear power plants. The United States, by comparison, has a 19.5 percent nuclear mix.

What makes people’s fears of nuclear power so perplexing is the fact that nuclear power has been found to be safer than fossil-fueled power sources. Joseph Romm, an energy expert, has been quoted as saying that “Nothing is worse than fossil fuels for killing people.” NASA’s Global Climate Change News states that “Coal and gas are far more harmful than nuclear power.” They state that power from natural gas causes “about 40 times more deaths per unit [of] electrical energy produced.”

I have a unique perspective of nuclear power, having been assigned to a nuclear submarine for three years. I worked and slept maybe 150 feet from a nuclear reactor for 600 days, and sometimes would even go to the reactor compartment to look through the lead glass shielding into the reactor. I received less radiation than people walking around outside.

Ron McCarley lives in Johnson City.

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