Nuclear power can help combat global warming
One issue that won't go away, climate change, is back in the news. According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels continued to increase last year. Since 1990 there has been an 18.4 percent rise in carbon emissions from power plants, which account for more than a third of our country's emissions. The question now is whether climate change is proceeding so rapidly that within decades we might be helpless to slow or reverse the trend.
And what are our political leaders doing about it? Though only a microcosm of government decision-making, the energy policy of the Western Governors Association (www.westgov.org) might offer some insight into current efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.
Addressing global warming at their recent annual meeting in Arizona, the WGA adopted a resolution calling for 30,000 megawatts of clean power generation in the region by 2015. And where would the additional power come from? The governors settled on renewable energy sources including hydro, natural gas, coal-to-gas technology and cogeneration.
Regardless of their merits, such energy sources have only limited ability to reduce carbon emissions. More troublesome, no mention was made of the one energy technology that produces large amounts of base-load electricity without releasing carbon dioxide: nuclear power.
Nuclear power provides 75 percent of the nation's emission-free electricity, contributing far more clean power than hydro, solar and wind combined.
Last year, U.S. nuclear power plants avoided the release of 680 million metric tons of carbon dioxide -- an amount roughly equivalent to the tailpipe emissions of 131 million cars on American roads. The U.S. Commission on Energy Policy said that nuclear power needs to play a key role in the effort to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Instead of nuclear power, the Western governors included natural gas and coal. Though cleaner than coal, natural gas is nonetheless a major contributor to the carbon problem. And coal gasification will not do much to reduce carbon emissions unless a safe and practical way is found to sequester carbon dioxide underground. Researchers are studying sequestration, but no proven technology exists for storing large volumes of carbon dioxide beneath the earth's surface.
Today, nuclear power plants can be built using standardized designs, several of which have been certified for use by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. With regulatory reforms, utilities are able to obtain a combined construction and operating license so that a new nuclear plant can begin commercial operation within four to five years from the first pouring of concrete. Congress has approved incentives and risk insurance for construction of the first few new nuclear plants.
The implications of that kind of support for a new generation of nuclear power plants are enormous. No longer does the idea of new nuclear plants popping up around the United States seem far-fetched. Nuclear power is the energy source that runs economies as diverse as France, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Among the countries that are rethinking nuclear power are Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Switzerland, all with their strong economic and environmental incentives to switch to an indigenous emission-free energy source.
If we are able to have reliable and affordable electricity from power plants that do not foul the air or make our planet unnaturally warm, the time to move ahead with construction of new nuclear plants is now. Nuclear power is part of the solution. The Western governors need to come up with a new regional plan that includes nuclear power.
Neil Bates is a nuclear engineer at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.