Nuclear Power: Small Risks, Big Gains

<i> A. David Rossin is a consultant in Los Altos Hills, Calif. for the nuclear industry, universities and national labs</i>

Ten years ago this week the scare headlines were about Three Mile Island. Today’s are about apples and global warming.

Three Mile Island was an accident, a single, startling event. There were fears that the so-called hydrogen bubble above the water in the power-plant reactor might explode and spread radiation. After the headlines subsided, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission explained (30 days after the accident) that the fears were exaggerated and the bubble never could have exploded at all. The hard work of learning lessons began.

More than $50 million was spent upgrading every nuclear power plant in the nation. Control rooms were redesigned to be “operator friendly,” instruments and control systems were modernized, training simulators were built and nuclear plant operators became the most highly trained people in any technical field. The investment is paying off in safe and reliable operation, and national production performance averages go up every year.


The technical lessons from Three Mile Island have been costly, but they have been learned and learned well. Where we have failed is in explaining that the risks of making electricity--and there are risks in every source of power--are terribly small compared to those of a modern society without enough electricity.

Ten years ago Americans were worried about burning up the world’s oil and gas and depriving our children and grandchildren of these premium fuels. Now there are gluts of both, and resource conservation can’t buy a headline. Today the hot concern is global: changes in the atmosphere during the next century, the greenhouse effect, acid rain and the deterioration of ozone above the polar icecap.

What are we offered for creative solutions? William Reilly, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, proposes as “bold actions” some tired Carter-era policies:

--Manufacture cars that average 40 miles per gallon. The easily engineered efficiency improvements have been wrung out of cars already. You can’t just keep improving at the same high rate; the only way to reach an average 40 miles per gallon is a law to make all cars small.

--Increase the worldwide use of catalytic converters. Now that we have them, the EPA wants to force them on all other industrial countries.

--Cut heating fuel use in homes by 50%. Maybe, if the winters get warmer than the summers.

--Impose fees on coal, oil and gas. This is called an economic incentive to shift away from fossil fuels. Instead, we are supposed to burn wood and other “vegetation,” which still makes carbon dioxide, a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. In the meantime, we are told to accelerate research on solar energy.

As any utility engineer knows, solar and nuclear energy are natural partners, never competitors. All solar energy comes during the day when the sun shines and when electricity loads are the highest. Nuclear plants are supposed to run at full power day and night. Utility companies use gas, oil or hydroelectric power to meet peak demands that usually occur during the day. Solar power could reduce the amount of gas, oil and hydroelectric power that utilities consume. So solar and nuclear don’t compete, they are natural partners. But solar energy has its limitations: The cost is high and lots of dedicated land is required to “collect” the solar energy.

The weakest argument against nuclear power is that it cannot take care of all our needs. Conservation cannot do that, either. We’ll need both. Unfortunately, the fastest-growing source for electricity production during the next decade will not be solar power or energy conservation; it will be natural gas, and the price of gas will be going up, not down.

So why does the EPA fail to consider nuclear power as a possible solution? The global warming and other environmental problems are long term and new nuclear plants built in the next century could make a significant difference. If we are really concerned about the environment, our political leaders will have to stand tall on issues that bring out hysterical rhetoric.

The National Resources Defense Council, the group that orchestrated the recent apple scare, used the same tactics against nuclear power. Crying danger about pesticide or radiation does scare people. “We wanted people to know what’s out there,” they say. But they don’t tell people how tiny the amounts are, or how small the calculated risks are compared to the risks of losing the nutritional value of the apples. And they never mention the risks to society if we cannot supply the electricity people depend on. We have “lifeline rates” (for example, for seniors and the poor) for electricity because it is now considered a right of all citizens.)

The latest Associated Press poll on nuclear energy found that 55% supported its use and 34% were opposed. Of the dozen voter initiatives to shut down nuclear plants, all were defeated.

Maybe those poll results will let politicians go public with what most in Congress privately admit: We are going to have to make some changes. Shopworn “solutions” won’t cut it. Opposing nuclear power is not the political nicety it used to be. When Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) announces hearings that include how to bring back nuclear power, we know that times are changing.