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Will Barry Go Nuclear?


In his State of the Union address last night, the current President repeated his vision for a “clean-energy economy” as a cornerstone to creating jobs. This time, Obama included something that many argue is not clean energy:

But to create more of these clean-energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives, and that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.

The problem is not a threat of meltdown. Chernobyl’s reactor was an inferior design, and its safety features were deliberately compromised. All the studies of the aftermath of Three Mile Island have failed to support any claims of negative health effects from that accident.

Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste. That’s the problem. The waste is hazardous for centuries and millenia. The political aspect of the waste problem has been an impediment to developing more nuclear plants in the U.S. since the 70s. In 1987, Congress decided to bury our nuclear waste, but activists have successfully blocked development of the Yucca Mountain storage site. In 2009, the Failed Obama Administration™ declared the site “not an option”, but Congress sustained funding anyway.

France has demonstrated that technology offers a solution where there is political will. Spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed into usable fuel. The New York Times ran last year ran a story about spent-fuel reprocessing:

Some U.S. nuclear experts, such as Bill Magwood IV, a physicist who directed nuclear programs in the Department of Energy for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, think there is much to learn from the French. In a recent paper, Magwood likened the U.S. process to "pulling a log out of the fireplace just because the bark has burned off." More than 90 percent of the energy in spent nuclear fuel remains available for reprocessing, while only 3 to 4 percent is "useless waste," he explained.

The volume of waste requiring burial can be reduced by 80% through reprocessing. The true waste—the byproducts of reprocessing—are cast into glass rods, expected to be stable for the centuries it takes for the radiation hazard to decay.

The French solution is for hire to other nations, too:

Japan, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy have shipped their wastes for reprocessing here in the past or are currently doing so. Eventually, after the residue from their wastes cools down, they will get it back for disposal.

In context of clean energy, nuclear power faces a political problem, not a technological one. In other contexts, nuclear does represent risks distinct from other energy sources. Mainly, there is the risk that terrorists could get hold of waste in transit to make a dirty bomb (not an atomic bomb with a mushroom cloud, but a regular explosion that spreads radioactive material over a wide area). The risk of losing plutonium is why Presdient Ford shut down commercial reprocessing in the U.S. in 1976.

There are also localized environmental problems that come with any fuel-consuming powerplant. Nearby rivers are often used as a source of cooling water. The waste heat messes with fish and plants. But this happens with coal, and nuclear doesn’t emit mercury that poisons the fish.

No energy source is perfectly clean. There are always inefficiencies and externalities. President Obama seems to be contradicting himself by calling for more nuclear power only a few months after dismissing the only U.S. waste storage site. The only path forward id to emulate the French—something to make Barry’s critics chuckle—and turn our nuclear waste into nuclear fuel.