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Published: April 2006

Nuclear Power

Boy Lawnmower

It’s Scary, It’s Expensive, It Could Save the Earth

Nuclear power risking a comeback.

By Charles Petit
Photograph by Chris Hamilton

Nukes again? Maybe. The United States operates 103 nuclear power reactors—that’s a quarter of the world’s total—even if the most famous U.S. nuke isn’t even real. That would be the Springfield plant, where doofus TV cartoon hero Homer Simpson is a safety inspector. “They’re cash cows,” says James Tulenko, a nuclear fuel specialist, University of Florida professor, and immediate past president of the American Nuclear Society. With hefty construction bills paid off at many plants, “you just deal with the operating costs. All those plants run flat out day and night,” he says. And they deliver electricity more cheaply than gas or coal plants.

That’s not the whole story, of course. The hopes of a burgeoning nuclear industry imploded 27 years ago after the partial meltdown at one of the Three Mile Island reactors in Pennsylvania, followed by the horror of Chernobyl seven years after that. Plus, decisions made by utility regulators in the 1970s and ‘80s left companies barely able to pay off billion-dollar nuclear construction bills. Now the U.S. produces half its electricity with cheaper coal-burning plants. The trouble with that is the two billion tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide spewing skyward every year. Industrializing nations, such as India and China, hungry for every megawatt of power they can produce, are also building new coal plants at a rapid clip.

Still, for nearly a decade, with no new plants, nukes’ 20 percent share of U.S. electricity production has held steady, keeping pace as overall electricity output has risen 15 percent. In the 1970s and 80s unscheduled shutdowns for repairs or other problems limited U.S. plants to less than 65 percent of their potential output. Today, with experience and improved operating practices, output exceeds 90 percent.

So is it time to embrace the atom again? There’s a “nuclear renaissance” buzz emitting from engineers who design and operate reactors, think-tank academics who worry about long-range energy and environmental strategies, utility company executives, top members of the Bush Administration, and members of Congress. Proponents say atomic energy is a proven technology for a 21st-century civilization desperate to swear off fossil fuels and not to go broke doing it. Nuclear fission emits none of the greenhouse gases that are warming the climate. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that without nuclear power playing its current role in the generation of electricity, the U.S. would spew 29 percent—190 million metric tons—more carbon than it does now.

Scratch a nuclear engineer these days, and you’ll likely find, under the buttoned-down exterior, a raving green activist. Even among the ranks of environmentalists who a decade ago could barely tolerate the mention of nukes, the possibility is getting an occasional thumbs-up. Climate change, for many, trumps any fear of nuclear energy. Its overwhelming advantage is that it’s atmospherically clean, writes Stewart Brand, founder of the 1970s Whole Earth Catalog.

Yet, Brand points out: “Nuclear certainly has problems—accidents, waste storage, high construction costs, and the possible use of nuclear fuel for weapons.” Most experts agree that such problems are no small drawback to forging ahead with new nukes. So despite shifting attitudes, atomic allergy has eased only slightly if at all among the bulk of prominent environmental leaders. Analysts also point to other problems, such as unresolved waste questions and limited public input on the whole issue of nuclear power. The current strategy, predicts Gus Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and Dean of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, will just replay the battles of the 1970s.

Other nations are watching the U.S., but not waiting. France gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and is considering replacing its older plants with new ones. And the industry is expected to burgeon in Asia in the next quarter century. China, on top of its headlong rush to build coal-burning plants, also has ambitious plans for new reactors: It can get 6,600 mega­watts of power now from nine reactors. It’s aiming for 40,000 megawatts.

India, a nation of 1.1 billion people—and one beset both by crushing poverty and a tumultuously expanding economy—has 15 nuclear power reactors already at work. Eight more are under construction, more than in any other nation. The Department of Atomic Energy lauds the greenhouse benefits of nukes, but the main impetus is sheer gigawatt lust. “Our energy policy is simple,” says Baldev Raj, director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research near the Bay of Bengal city of Chennai. “If you have a way to make electricity, then we say, make as much as you can.”

That would include building reactors such as those at Kaiga Generating Station in a clearing in the jungled Western Ghats mountains about 20 miles inland from southwest India’s seacoast. Coming upon the two 220-megawatt, pressurized heavy-water reactors is like stumbling into a thumping big factory in the middle of Yellowstone National Park. The region gets more than 15 feet of rain yearly, and its forest is home to increasingly threatened species. “Tigers? Yes, they are near. Panthers and king cobra too,” says Anwar Siddiqui, senior manager for the Nuclear Power Corporation of India.

A country with reactors in such places must really like them. Amid a jumble of construction cranes and heavy concrete walls, two similar reactors are rising next to the first two, and another pair, more than twice as powerful, will likely join them in coming years.

Back near the Indira Gandhi center a 500-megawatt breeder reactor is under construction and set to start up in 2010. Four more are to follow by 2020. They are very efficient at manufacturing plutonium fuel from their original uranium fuel load, which greatly increases the amount of energy they produce. But critics worry that the plutonium could possibly get in the wrong hands.

In part because of proliferation concerns, the U.S. has sworn off such breeder reactors for the time being. But outside powers have little leverage over India’s nukes. With few exceptions they are entirely homegrown. India gave itself little choice about going it alone. In 1974, it set off an underground nuclear explosion using plutonium surreptitiously diverted from a test reactor that Canada helped it build in the 1950s.

India became a nuclear pariah. Other countries suspended technical assistance, and Canadian engineers walked off a job in Rajasthan. The Indians finished the plant themselves.

They are now enthusiastic masters of all things nuclear. The uranium fuel in Kaiga’s reactors comes from mines west of Calcutta; workshops in the south provide the plant with gleaming, 65-foot-high, 110-ton steam generators that drive electric dynamos. Control systems, zircaloy fuel tubes, and 22-ton reactor components arrive from Hyderabad.

“We can’t go back, we can only go forward,” said Swapnesh Malhotra, a spokesman for India’s atomic energy department. “Life depends on energy, and I ask, where do we get it? We will get it somewhere.”

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