This is the second part of my two-part post examining energy options for reducing Maryland's greenhouse gas emissions. In my previous post we looked at a variety of energy alternatives available to replace the large, base-load coal plants that generate so much greenhouse gas (and other pollution) in Maryland. We looked at 'clean coal' natural gas and fuel oil generation. In addition, we looked at renewable technologies such as wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal, hydro and biomass. Today we're going to look at nuclear energy.
The map above shows the location of nuclear generating facilities in France, which generates about 80 percent of its electricity at nuclear facilities. France is also the world's largest exporter of electricity, due, in part, to it's relatively low cost. Japan is another country with a large nuclear generating capacity with some 55 units generating around 30 percent of Japan's electricity. Five new plants are under construction in Japan. Nuclear power accounts for about 19 percent of the electricity generation in the United States. In Maryland, the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Lusby accounts for about 14 percent of the state's generating capacity (but a higher percentage of the total electricity generated because it operates for a higher percentage of the time.)
Like every other source of power, nuclear energy has its problems and concerns. Let's take a look at them.
Many people believe nuclear energy is inherently dangerous, that is an accurate assessment. There are a number of things that can go wrong and lead to release of radiation or much worse. Since commercial generation of nuclear power began in the 1950's there have been twenty or so significant accidents. Three of those are well known.
- In March of 1979 near Middletown, Pennsylvania, equipment failures and worker mistakes contributed to a loss of coolant accident (LOCA) and partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The reactor was extensively damaged, but on-site radiation exposure was under 100 millirems (about one year's natural exposure) and some two million people in the vicinity received about 1 millrem. There were no reported fatalities although statistical estimates indicate that there may be one fatality due to the excess radiation.
- In April of 1986 near Pripiat, Ukraine, worker error led to an uncontrolled power excursion, a steam explosion, partial core meltdown and release of radioactive material at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. There were approximately 50 fatalities during and immediately after the disaster. The explosion and subsequent burning of the graphite core reactor spread radioactive material over much of Europe. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated from the immediate vicinity and downwind. While estimates vary widely, the UN has estimated that some 4,000 additional premature deaths will result from radiation exposure.
- In September of 1999 at Ibaraki prefecture in Japan, workers at a reprocessing facility accidentally added enough uranium solution to a precipitation tank to achieve a critical mass. The resulting radiation killed two workers and exposed more than 100 others to higher than normal radiation.
These are the only civilian nuclear power accidents I've been able to find which led to fatalities. Let's contrast this briefly with the safety of coal power. Since the 1950's when commercial nuclear generation of electricity began, there have been several thousand fatalities in coal mines. In addition, around twenty thousand miners are injured each year. Further, tens of thousands have been crippled and or had their lives markedly shortened by black lung disease. Worldwide, the number of deaths and injuries is staggering. In China alone, more than 4,000 were killed in 2006. Thousands more fatalities can reliably be attributed to the environmental effects of buring coal to produce electricity.
Critics of nuclear power point rightly to the fact that our country has been unable to come up with a method for the long term disposal of high level nuclear wastes. High level nuclear wastes amount to 5 percent or less of the total radioactive wastes produced by commercial nuclear reactors. Low level and mid level nuclear wastes have been disposed of safely without a problem. High level nuclear wastes are the products of the fission of uranium which include radioisotopes which can emit ionizing radiation. Some of the fission products can remain dangerously radioactive for thousands or millions of years.
In the United States geologic disposal is the disposal method which has gained the most favor. This involves sealing the wastes into very strong casks and burying it deep underground. The Department of Energy has been developing a waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. It is not operational yet, however due to a variety of engineering and political issues.
Geological disposal, however, is not the only option for disposal. It is worth noting that other countries have made much more progress on the issue. Sweden and Finland, for example are well advanced with geologic disposal and Canada is seriously considering a similar options. Other countries such as France, UK, Japan, Russia and, recently, India, have nuclear fuel reprocessing plants which reprocess the spent fuel into new nuclear fuel. Another option, which has not been used involves mixing the nuclear waste with tailings from uranium mines down to the level of radioactivity of the original uranium and then reburying it in the mines.
Disposal of waste from nuclear power plants is a problem that is being solved. Disposal of waste from coal power plants, on the other hand, remains problematic. The biggest waste product - carbon dioxide - is accumulating in our atmosphere and has the potential to create a global disaster in time on a scale unprecendented.
So, yes. Nuclear power has its problems, but, to me at least, it looks like the least bad of all the options for electric power generation. Governor O'Malley seems to have recognized this with his recent support for the additional plant that Constellation Energy proposes for Lusby. The 4,000 megawatts of power that will be generated by this plant could replace all the electricity generated by the Chalk Point and Brandon Shores coal plants. Together these two plants emit more than 14 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. Another nuclear plant, perhaps located in Central Maryland, would allow the closure of all coal-fired plants in Maryland.
Nuclear power is already competitive with coal power on a cost basis. With a modest carbon tax, nuclear power could easily displace the dirty coal plants that are polluting our air and water. There would be no cost to Maryland consumers since all the proceeds from the carbon tax could be distributed to Maryland consumers on a regular basis. Clean air, clean water, no cost...what more could we want?