The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has won accolades during California's electricity shortage for keeping the lights on in Los Angeles without raising rates. Yet has anyone bothered to ask where the DWP gets its power?
More than 50% of the municipal utility's electricity comes from coal plants in Arizona, Utah and Nevada. More than 25% comes from natural-gas plants located around Los Angeles. The bulk of the remainder is split between the Palo Verde nuclear reactor in Arizona and Hoover Dam and other hydroelectric facilities. Unlike most other utilities in California, the DWP gets virtually none of its power--a mere 2%--from "alternate sources" like wind and geothermal plants. Why? The California Public Utilities Commission decided not to saddle the DWP and other municipal utilities with expensive and often unreliable alternate energy sources.
The lesson is instructive. No matter how much people talk about "conservation and solar" or "drilling for more oil and gas," the nation's real choice in generating electricity remains between coal and nuclear. In 1980, when nuclear seemed poised as the fuel of the future, we generated 51% of our electricity by burning 569 million short tons of coal. Today, we generate 56% of our electricity by burning 978 million short tons of coal. This is the principal source of our greenhouse gases.
The nuclear effort died in 1980 because of excessive costs, environmental objections and the Three Mile Island accident, which gave the technology a forbidding aura. After 20 years of lurking in the shadows, nuclear power is again emerging as a promising technology. Nuclear produces no carbon dioxide, as does coal, oil and even "clean" natural gas. Moreover, as we attempt to reduce auto emissions by switching to electric cars (as California is now mandating), an even greater energy burden will be placed on the electrical grid.
There are three main questions about nuclear energy: 1) Can reactors be made safe? 2) Is exposure to low levels of radiation dangerous? 3) Is there any way of solving the problem of nuclear wastes?
After Three Mile Island, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began an aggressive program for safety improvements. Each of the nation's 103 nuclear reactors now has a simulated control room in which operators practice and train one day out of four on the job. Ownership has shifted from passive, regulated utilities to more ambitious private energy specialists such as Exelon and Duke Power.
At first, the NRC was horrified at the idea of private ownership of reactors. In 1993, Ivan Selin, the commission chairman, warned that running reactors for a profit might create "incentives to cut corners." Today, the NRC admits it was wrong. "The industry has made tremendous strides," says Victor Dricks, spokesman for the commission. "Both the number of safety-system activations and scrams [automatic protective shutdowns] are about one-tenth of what they were in 1985."
Safety and profit, it turns out, go hand in hand. "We spend 24 hours a day thinking about safety," says Karl Neddenien, spokesman for Constellation Energy, which owns three reactors in Maryland. "If one reactor in the country had a meltdown, we'd lose our whole fleet."
Nuclear reactors now run nearly two years without shutdowns. In 2000, the nation's fleet of reactors ran at an astounding 90% of capacity. By contrast, coal plants run at 69% capacity, and oil and natural gas at less than 35%, mainly since fuel is so expensive, it pays to shut them down. Hydroelectric dams, at the mercy of rainfall and snowmelt, ran at only 40% capacity in 2000.
"Combined with the drop in uranium prices, this has made nuclear the nation's cheapest source of electricity," brags Marvin Fertel, director of business operations for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry trade group. "This can only improve as natural gas becomes more expensive."
While nuclear power's fuel costs drop lower, however, construction costs remain high. Gas-fired plants can still be built for $500 per kilowatt; nuclear reactors cost $2,400 per kilowatt. Even as energy companies rush to extend their reactor licenses for another 20 years, no one is proposing any new plants.
But this may also change. "Under state regulation, every new reactor has been designed from the ground up," says Fertel. "We're trying to get the NRC to approve a standard format." If nuclear reactors can be built off-the-shelf, with uniform architecture and interchangeable parts, they will become much cheaper.
One promising development is "pebble-bed" technology, invented in Germany in the 1980s. Pebble-bed reactors package their nuclear material in tens of thousands of graphite-coated spheres the size of tennis balls. A dense silicon-carbon coating ensures that no radioactive gases can escape. Because of this insulation, nuclear fuel can't overheat and cause a meltdown. The technology makes it possible to build reactors without expensive containment vessels. "We call the pebble-bed design the politically correct reactor," adds Andrew C. Kadak, professor of nuclear engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose class is working on a 110-megawatt "modular" reactor. "It's environmentally friendly."
During the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear opponents argued that the toxic effects of high doses of radiation should be extrapolated downward to the lower levels associated with nuclear plants. Such activists as John Gofman and Ernest Sternglass regularly conjured up nightmare visions of thousands of children dying from cancer within sight of a nuclear plant.
This thinking has now been discredited. In 1991, the National Cancer Institute published a report in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. that concluded there is "no general increased risk of death from cancer for people living in 197 U.S. counties containing or closely adjacent to 62 nuclear facilities." Demographic studies have shown that cancer rates are actually lower in areas with high natural radiation. People living on the Rocky Mountain Plateau receive the highest doses of background radiation in the country, yet have the lowest rates of cancer. This phenomenon has spawned a counter-theory: Higher levels of background radiation may be healthy because they may stimulate the body's genetic-repair mechanisms, just as vaccines stimulate the immune system against microbial invaders. Since living on the property line of a nuclear plant adds only 1 millirem per year to normal radiation background levels of 250-350 millirems, the whole issue seems inconsequential.
Finally, there's the problem of nuclear wastes. The Department of Energy has chosen Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository for long-term storage. The site is geologically stable and rises 1,000 feet above the water table. "It's a safe, solid geological repository," says Bruce Babbit, former secretary of the Interior. The real problem is political. Nevada residents don't want to be known as the nation's "nuclear dumping grounds." Yet, if the issue can be reframed in terms of a civic virtue--and if adequate financial compensation can be devised--the problem may solve itself. "At least we know where our wastes are," says Rod McCullum, project manager for used-fuel management at the Nuclear Energy Institute. "We're not dumping them into the atmosphere as coal plants do."
The best way to understand nuclear energy's potential is to recognize the significance of Albert Einstein's equation, E=mc. The formula reveals that most of the energy in the universe is locked up in matter. When nuclear energy is tapped, as is done in the sun or a nuclear power plant, the amount of energy produced is one sextillion times the amount of matter transformed, as opposed to multiples of only 10 or 100 in the release of the chemical energy stored in coal. This explains why a small handful of uranium can produce more energy than a 100-car trainload of coal.
The Earth's vast reservoirs of fossil fuels will eventually become harder and harder to access. If we are to persist as a civilization--without burning up half the Earth's furniture in the process--it seems sensible that we should avail ourselves of the much greater reservoirs of energy in the atom itself.