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Bill Temmink: It’s time to reconsider nuclear energy options

By Bill Temmink
For Bay Journal News Service

three mile island nuclear energy
An aerial view of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, PA, where one of two reactors partially melted down in 1979. The other reactor, with its cooling towers in the foreground, went back online in 1984 and operated until September 2019, when it was decommissioned by its owner, Exelon Generation. (Bay Journal photo by Dave Harp)

In his opinion column, “Where Solar Arrays Shouldn’t Go Is As Critical As Where They Do Go” (December 2020), Lee Epstein of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation asserts that we should take care to locate solar energy fields only where they are appropriate.

First, he is absolutely correct. Careful placement of solar energy is a must to avoid damage to wildlife, arable land and the power grid itself. Further, he is correct that wise use of solar, combined with a laser-like focus on energy efficiency, may well be the energy-use transition strategy we need to get us to the next step in clean energy. And in my opinion, that strategy needs to include nuclear power. To be precise, new nuclear power technologies.

Both solar and wind energy are renewable but have very large land-use footprints. They also have a fundamental flaw: They create energy on the timeline of nature, not the timeline of use. They rarely create the exact energy we need at exactly the time we need it. Energy storage technologies are not going to be available for systemwide use in time to make up for the variability of energy output from these two sources. For these reasons, they rely largely on fossil fuel for a backup. Thus, these renewable technologies may not be the correct way to meet the Chesapeake Bay region’s long-range goals for clean energy.

The term “renewable” energy caught on when there were serious concerns that we would run out of energy, particularly oil. For all practical purposes, that fear has been laid to rest. The larger problem we face today is not lack of energy, but too much atmospheric carbon from the use of energy. We should retire the term renewable and replace it with either “clean” energy or “zero-carbon” energy. By doing so, we open the field to revisit old energy technologies and examine new ones.

It is time we take a renewed look at nuclear power, both the second-generation power plants that most folk envision when they think of nuclear and the newer nuclear technologies being tested and deployed today. First, nuclear plants in use today produce 100 to 2,000 times as much energy per acre as solar and wind do. While land use is not the only measure of energy efficiency, it is a measure in which nuclear power has always excelled. New nuclear technologies are even more land efficient.

Second, and to slay the elephant in the room, nuclear is both safer and cleaner than either wind or solar by any relevant measure. Feel free to do your own research on these points. What you find may surprise you.

Most residents of the Chesapeake region have not really revisited nuclear technology in decades. Fear, largely overblown, of the potential for nuclear plant disaster is what resides in the recesses of their minds. But despite that fear, nuclear power is by far the safest of any of the current energy technologies. By-and-large, though, people really do not accept this. I think the combination of the movie, The China Syndrome, with the meltdown of Three Mile Island is the last thing people really remember about nuclear power in the United States.

But this might be my personal view. The younger folks’ fears of nuclear power are more likely driven by episodes of The Simpsons. Where else is there any public discussion of nuclear power? Nuclear power does not make news because it routinely and safely produces clean energy.

The last U.S. nuclear meltdown was 1979 at the Three Mile Island plant on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, PA. It resulted in no deaths, and only temporary evacuations. And even though one of the plant’s two reactors was permanently shut down after the accident, the remaining reactor, put back online in 1984, went on to produce some 800 megawatts of carbon-free energy for 35 years (it was decommissioned in 2019). What other energy can make that claim?

Further, Three Mile Island was old nuclear technology. The new technologies are safer, cleaner, likely cheaper and offer a variety of other benefits that no current technology can approach. Just to name a few of the side benefits of new nuclear: it can be used to create other clean fuels, create clean water, power industrial production and create medical isotopes currently in desperately low supply.

To start with safety, Benjamin Soon, of Flibe Energy, pointed out the how third– and fourth-generation nuclear power has redefined nuclear safety and even created a new measure of energy safety. He uses the term, “probabilistic safety” to describe the state of most older nuclear reactors. Probabilistic safety is when the risk of a worst-case scenario is low, but the worst-case scenario itself is unacceptable. There has never been a worst-case nuclear disaster in the United States. Yet people still worry there might be.

The new standard for nuclear safety, he argued, should be “deterministic safety.” Deterministic safety means that even the worst-case accident scenario is acceptable — because it is simply not that bad. The plant might have to be shut down for a while, but there would be no possibility of a major explosion or radiation leak. The new nuclear technologies coming on-line today all are based on deterministic safety standards. They are, experts say, “walk-away safe. “

Nuclear already provides most of the clean energy today, both in the United States and around the world. It uses less resources than any other power technology, whether fossil-based or “renewable.” It is safer than any other power technology. It is the only power technology where every ounce of its waste is stored and monitored. And, as it turns out, most of what has been considered nuclear waste is now finding a use in more advanced nuclear technologies.

The only real competitor to nuclear is hydroelectric power, and more and more people are realizing how much environmental damage is done by damming rivers. This is especially a problem when, inevitably, silt deposited behind those dams reduces the volume of water that the reservoirs can hold. Further, in the Chesapeake Bay region there are no more large flowing bodies of water to dam.

Epstein rightly points out that to create a megawatt of solar power you need roughly five to 10 acres of land. For the same amount of land, nuclear can create hundreds and, in some cases thousands, of times more clean energy. Further, new nuclear technologies can almost invariably be placed where old fossil fuel plants are being retired. This means, essentially, no land needs to be taken out of service. This has the added advantage that the power lines are already in place and land for new transmission lines does not have to be acquired.

Further, because nuclear plants can run steadily, little if any new land will be required for energy storage or to augment power lines for sporadic increases and decreases in electrical load. Last, but not least, new nuclear energy technologies promise to be at least 10 times more efficient than those of the current U.S. nuclear fleet. That eliminates the real reason nuclear power has not been building its foothold in the United States: cost.

In short, it is time to revisit the nuclear option for clean, zero-carbon energy.

Bill Temmink of Joppa, Md., is an environmental activist who began to reconsider nuclear energy three years ago after reading Richard Martin’s 2013 book “Superfuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future.” His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal. This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue of the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

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