Something was amiss when Al Gore gave his high-profile speech on global warming last week, and it wasn’t just the gas-guzzling SUV caravan that delivered the former vice president for the occasion. Even as Gore endorsed an ambitious 10-year plan to produce 100 percent of the country’s electricity through carbon-free sources, he omitted the one carbon-free source that truly could ease America’s energy woes: nuclear power. That is not entirely surprising. For the environmental Left, the efficiency of nuclear power has long been an inconvenient truth.
The anti-nuclear campaign scored its first major success in 1979. That year, environmental activists effectively brought the construction of American nuclear power plants to a halt. Their crusade was assisted immeasurably by The China Syndrome, an intellectually vapid film whose star, anti-nuclear activist Jane Fonda, played a TV reporter who uncovers a nuclear accident at a California power plant. In an unfortunate coincidence for America’s nuclear industry, twelve days after the film’s release, an accident did in fact occur at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Almost overnight, nuclear power plants became politically radioactive. All plans for the construction of additional plants were cancelled.
Fonda was “ecstatic” at the film’s commercial success, which was due in large measure to the public curiosity sparked by the TMI incident. But in the anti-nuclear hysteria that followed, some crucial details were lost. If Three Mile Island was a disaster, it was largely in terms of public relations: the meltdown had resulted in no injuries and precisely zero deaths – indeed, there was no sign of harm to any living thing in the plant’s vicinity. The worst that occurred was that the two million residents in the surrounding were exposed to approximately one-sixth the amount of radiation that they would have absorbed from a single chest X-ray at their local hospital. Thanks to the plant’s built-in safety features, the public was never in danger.
Seven years later, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine injected the anti-nuclear movement with a new burst of self-righteous momentum. That incident resulted directly in the deaths of more than 30 people, and it exposed millions more to radiation that, by the highest estimates, could eventually result in several thousand cancer-related deaths. Moreover, it rendered some 20 square miles of land uninhabitable for an extended period.
Seizing on this most welcome bad news, anti-nuclear alarmists carefully avoided drawing attention to the fact that the Soviet reactor in Chernobyl was an outmoded relic: it bore no resemblance to the reactors that were used in the West. Most notably, it lacked containment shells to prevent radioactive materials from escaping in the event of an accident. The far superior Western reactors were equipped not only with such safeguards, but also with numerous built-in sensors designed to shut down the plant immediately in the event of trouble.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American nuclear plants have long been safer workplaces than most other manufacturing plants. The nuclear industry’s safety record is far better than that of the competing coal industry, for instance. Each year in the United States, an average of 33 coal miners die in the line of work, yet there have been no calls to end coal mining on grounds that it is too dangerous. In other nations, the numbers are much worse. During Chernobyl’s heyday, thousands of men were killed in coal mining accidents in the Soviet Union. In China, some 5,000 coal miners perish in accidents each and every year. Since the dawn of the nuclear era, the world’s 400-plus civilian nuclear plants have logged well over 10,000 aggregate years of activity, and Chernobyl remains the only accident ever to have harmed members of the public. In addition, the U.S. Navy has been powering ships with nuclear reactors for more than 50 years and has experienced no nuclear accidents.
Nor is there any discernible health risk associated with living close to a nuclear plant. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a person would have to live next door to such a plant for more than 2,000 years to get the amount of radiation exposure he gets from a single X-ray.
Nuclear power plants, which use atom-splitting fission to release energy and produce electricity, currently generate about 19 percent of America’s electrical output. A far greater percentage of the nation’s electricity is created with fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil. These are used to heat water into steam which turns the blades of a turbine, which in turn rotates the shaft of an electrical generator, causing a coil of wire within the generator to spin in a magnetic field and create electricity. Coal today is used to produce about 49 percent of America’s electricity, while natural gas and petroleum account for another 20 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Other sources of electricity include:
- hydropower (accounting for 7 percent of U.S. electrical production), where flowing water is used to spin the turbine·
- geothermal power (less than 1 percent), which harnesses heat energy buried beneath the earth’s surface
- solar power (less than 1 percent), which is four times more expensive than nuclear power and at least five times the cost of coal, and is undependable because it produces electricity only when the sun is shining.
- wind power (less than 1 percent), which is similarly expensive and undependable because its turbines produce electricity only about a third of the time (i.e., when the wind is blowing)
- biomass power (about 1 percent), a highly inefficient system that uses agricultural waste to produce electricity; to shift America’s electrical production entirely to biomass, a farming area ten times the size of Iowa would be required.
As explained above, fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum) currently account for a combined 71 percent of U.S. electrical production. Nuclear energy offers an extremely clean, cost-effective alternative to those fossil fuels. Nuclear plants put no carbon dioxide into the air, and the relatively miniscule quantities of radioactive waste they produce are stored in sealed, self-contained, carefully guarded sites. A coal-fired plant releases 100 times more radioactive material than an equivalent nuclear reactor—and not into a self-contained storage site but directly into the atmosphere. By generating electricity whose production otherwise would have required the use of fossil fuels, the 104 nuclear plants now operating in the U.S. prevent the release of approximately 700 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year; that is the equivalent of removing 96 percent of all passenger cars from U.S. roads.
If not for nuclear energy, America’s dependence on foreign oil would be even greater than it currently is. During the 1973 oil embargo, nuclear technology produced only 5 percent of the U.S. electric supply, while oil accounted for 17 percent. Today those figures are 19 percent and 2 percent, respectively. If more nuclear plants are constructed, they could replace coal and natural gas as America’s major source of electricity production.
Although nuclear power is still controversial in the U.S., other nations have long relied on nuclear infrastructures. France generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity via nuclear power, as does Lithuania. The corresponding figures for other countries include 55 percent in Belgium, 50 percent in Sweden, 41 percent in Switzerland, 40 percent in South Korea, 34 percent in Japan, and 27 percent in Spain.
Perhaps the most revolutionary benefit the U.S. could derive from nuclear power would be the ability to produce and harness mass quantities of hydrogen to fuel automobiles. Natural gas and oil are currently the most common energy sources used for producing hydrogen. But nuclear reactors are unmatched in their capacity to do the two things most necessary for the efficient, cost-effective production of hydrogen: generating both electricity and very high temperatures.
At a time when Americans are unwilling to outsource their fuel needs to terror-sponsoring petro-states – think Saudi Arabia and Venezuela – nuclear power would seem to be the perfect solution to the nation’s energy crisis. But it’s one you’ll never hear from Al Gore and likeminded doomsayers on the green Left.