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A dangerous solution

Authors: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, and Svend Soeyland
February 20, 2006
The Baltimore Sun

What do President Bush and the former director of Greenpeace International, Patrick Moore, have in common? They both back expansion of nuclear energy use.

A growing number of prominent environmentalists are hopping on the nuclear bandwagon because of alarm about global warming. The process from uranium mining to nuclear power generation emits less greenhouse gases than conventional coal or oil-fired power generation.

In his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush played to concerns about energy dependency and perhaps global warming by calling for more investment in “clean, safe nuclear energy.” In the proposed federal budget, the Bush administration has requested $250 million to launch a new nuclear energy initiative, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

While this initiative might alleviate the environmental disaster of global warming, it might also increase the likelihood of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapon materials.

In a speech to the U.N. Security Council, Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that “nuclear obliteration of a major city…would bring years, if not decades, of massive health care and environmental cleanup costs to the nation where the attack occurred.”

A major part of the new initiative is to revive American reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from power plants. Reprocessing separates plutonium - a nuclear weapons material - from highly radioactive substances inside spent fuel. A U.S. government decision to restart reprocessing would reverse a decades-long policy to avoid this potentially dangerous practice.

In the 1970s, both Republican President Gerald Ford and Democratic President Jimmy Carter decided against reprocessing. Mr. Carter explicitly cited concerns about increasing stockpiles of weapons-usable plutonium.

Proponents of the new initiative propose to use a type of reprocessing that they claim is proliferation-resistant. This method would mix the plutonium with other elements, such as neptunium, to increase the difficulty of making a nuclear bomb from the mixture.

But plutonium, neptunium and the other elements being considered are not too radioactive to handle. Consequently, thieves or terrorists could steal this material without suffering lethal exposure to debilitating radiation.

An important test case for the new initiative is: Would Mr. Bush share the purported proliferation-resistant reprocessing technology with Iran? While Mr. Bush recently stated that “Iranians should have a civilian nuclear program,” he has expressed concern that they have a nuclear weapons program.

Iran has investigated traditional reprocessing methods, which it could clandestinely use to separate plutonium from proliferation resistant reactor fuel. Without rigorous international controls, the new reprocessing method does not provide adequate resistance to proliferation.

Although some environmentalists have started to embrace nuclear energy, many leading environmental organizations oppose reprocessing as a proliferation-prone and financially unwise endeavor.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s lobbying firm, is supportive of “future reprocessing.” But the institute’s chief nuclear officer, Marvin S. Fertel, testified to a congressional committee in July that reprocessing “requires massive and expensive facilities.”

Faced with these costs, the new nuclear initiative might not be the best way to spend scarce national funds to solve urgent energy security needs and environmental problems.

Part of the solution was included in the State of the Union address, in which Mr. Bush deserves praise for promoting “revolutionary solar and wind technologies” and technologies to capture and store greenhouse gases from coal-fired plants.

The United States has abundant supplies of cheap coal that could last for hundreds of years and that would help break Americans’ addiction to oil from foreign sources.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush failed to mention a proven method for reducing dependency on oil from dangerous parts of the world. Investment in energy efficiency resulted in a 15 percent reduction in oil use from 1979 to 1985. During the same period, gross domestic product rose by 16 percent. Since then, America has slacked off in leveraging energy efficiency.

Before spending money on new exotic nuclear technologies, the U.S. should carefully weigh the impact on the economy, the environment and national security. Carbon capture and storage and energy efficiency offer more useful ways to lessen energy dependence and global warming.

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