his campaign, Barack Obama tirelessly read from the teleprompter
about Americaís urgent need to reduce its reliance on foreign oil
and the need for alternative renewable energy sources. Surprisingly,
nuclear energy - the one technology that could help the country meet
this objective - was not mentioned in the presidentís recent
speeches, his stimulus package or his bloated budget. Sadly, the
mammoth budget contained not one penny for the best hope we have of
energy independence in our lifetime.
The usual excuses given for avoiding the nuclear answer have worn
quite thin. Arguments involving safety or vulnerability to terrorist
attack seem to have fallen by the wayside. The safety record of new
nuclear technology renders such Jurassic objections quite obsolete.
The poster children for the anti-nuclear crowd - Three Mile
Island and Chernobyl - have also been retired. The 1979 Three Mile
Island mishap represented a series of improbable errors and failures
- both mechanical and human in nature - yet few realize that there
were no injuries or deaths. Whatís more, the local population of 2
million people received an average estimated radiation dose of about
1 millirem - miniscule compared to the 360 millirems per year the
average American receives in simple background radiation - the
equivalent of a chest X-ray
Since then, however, a number of technological and procedural
changes have been implemented by industry and the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission to make a similar mishap virtually impossible to reoccur.
The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl involved operators who
inexplicably chose to deactivate automatic shutdown mechanisms to
carry out an experiment. But the problem was these prehistoric
reactors lacked fully enclosed containment buildings, a basic safety
installation for commercial reactors in the United States. Of the
approximately 50 fatalities, most were rescue workers who entered
contaminated areas without being informed of the danger.
The only remaining argument against nuclear power - where to
store spent nuclear fuel - also has a solution. Every year, the
nationís 104 nuclear plants create about 2,200 tons of nuclear
waste and store them in containers beside cooling towers across
America. At 120 locations in 39 different states, a total of 66,000
tons of used radioactive fuel is stored in concrete containers out
in the open. Clearly, it is better to consolidate the nuclear waste
we already have at one site than leave it scattered above ground at
nuclear reactors across the country. Nuclear power deniers argue
that we have no place to go with this dangerous, but renewable
waste, but we do.
After 20 years of research and testing, Nevadaís Yucca Mountain
has proven to be a geologically stable facility capable of
supporting its intended function of securing and storing spent
nuclear reactor fuel. Spent pellets will be stored in sealed,
retrievable casks that can be safely monitored to ensure they are
sealed and no hazardous material escapes.
New technology allows us to now separate plutonium or fissionable
uranium from spent nuclear fuel and recover more than 90 percent of
the useable fuel. The Yucca Mountain design neatly allows casks to
be retrieved at a later date when reprocessing becomes the most
efficient source of enriched uranium. Even the transportation
process for shipping all of the waste has been tested without
Yucca Mountain has been tested for seismic activity and even an
unlikely earthquake will not cause any rupture of storage casks.
There are multiple 26-foot diameter tunnels connected with railroads
and robotic engines to move storage casks. Its original design has a
capacity of 77,000 tons of waste, but includes provisions to more
than double the capacity. This is enough storage to last for
generations without reprocessing, and for more than 1,000 years with
Solar and wind power are not solutions to our current energy
problems - and will not be in the foreseeable future. Solar panels
are expensive and fragile. Each photovoltaic panel is only about 40
percent efficient and the initial cost of the panels is high and the
return small. In order to produce solar energy the sun must be
shining and there are significant problems with energy storage. The
problem is a lack of continuous sunlight, not weak technology.
Wind power isnít much better. The space needed for so-called
"wind farms" can seriously alter the environment and wind
power does not generate very much energy for the price. Denmark has
more than 6,000 turbines that produce about 19 percent of what the
country uses, yet no conventional power plant has been shut down in
that country. Because of the intermittency and variability of the
wind, conventional power plants must be kept running at full
capacity to meet the actual demand for electricity. People still
need power when the wind isnít blowing.
Does anybody recall when or why we created the U.S. Department of
Energy? It was created in 1977 to "lessen our dependence on
foreign oil." Thirty-two years later its annual budget tops $25
billion, it employs 16,000 federal employees and more than 100,000
contract employees, and hasnít even made a dent in achieving its
original goal. There hasnít been a new reactor built from the
ground up in the United States for 30 years.
The United States ranks 17th in the world in the percentage of
its total power produced by nuclear power - a mere 19 percent -
compared to Franceís 78 percent. South Korea, Switzerland and
Hungary are far ahead of us in the rankings and Asia is rapidly
building new nuclear power plants to solve its energy shortfalls.
Our country is facing electricity shortages, fossil fuel price
increases, and an escalating need for national energy security and
independence. The demand for clean and safe nuclear power has never
been greater, yet the public has been intentionally misled into
believing that clean energy sources like wind and solar can
simultaneously grow the economy, fight the myth of anthropogenic
global warming and cease our dependence on foreign oil.
Our president has perpetuated this absurd, farcical delusion.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the total
wind and solar production for 2008 amounted to 1.1 percent of
Americaís electrical consumption. Even if Obamaís goal of
doubling that output was realized, this would take us to a whopping
2.2 percent of total production. Thatís a long way from ending our
dependency on foreign oil and domestic coal.
We must stop making technology-related decisions based on
politically-correct opinions. In refusing to look at the viable
option of nuclear energy, it appears President Obama and the nuclear
power deniers plan to leave our grandchildren both broke and
Gary Wickert is an author, trial lawyer, and town of
supervisor, who lives with his wife and two sons. He can be reached
His column is available online at www.gmtoday.com/milwaukeetoday/editorials/wickert.asp