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Nuclear power is the solution


April 23, 2009

Throughout 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 incident.

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 reprocessing.

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 powerless.

Gary Wickert is an author, trial lawyer, and town of Cedarburg supervisor, who lives with his wife and two sons. He can be reached at His column is available online at



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