In Response: Build nuclear plants to bolster strained power grid
The perceptive June 28 column about the strained power grid in the U.S. (National View: "Americans support shoring up strained U.S. power grid") raised an important question: With demand for electricity increasing and with our power grid threatened by potent climate-change storms, how should we generate the added electricity we need without further damaging our environment or over-stressing the grid?
The column correctly mentioned the ability of coal and nuclear power plants to run continuously because they have on-site fuel storage. However, there is a huge difference in the magnitude of fuel storage between nuclear power plants and coal or gas-fired plants. A newly loaded nuclear plant can run at full power on the fuel within its reactors for three to five years while coal and gas-fired power plants quickly run out of fuel if the supply chain fails for any reason, including an accident, floods, a tornado, war, or sabotage. (The 2.2-megawatt plant in Becker, Minn., requires the BNSF Railroad to deliver at least 35,000 tons of coal every day.)
We know that burning coal, oil, natural gas, or biomass will add more carbon dioxide to our already burdened atmosphere and further acidify our increasingly troubled oceans. So why aren't we rapidly building carbon dioxide-free, 90 percent-efficient nuclear plants that last for 60 years, some of which can even consume our stored nuclear waste as fuel?
Those who have run the numbers on wind and solar know that their low, 30 percent efficiency actually decreases during their 20-year lifespans. They also know that the 70 percent of their rated power that they don't deliver must be provided by power plants that primarily burn carbon, which makes more carbon dioxide.
In the case of power plants that burn natural gas, we alslo must realize that "natgas" is 90 percent methane, a greenhouse gas 70 times worse than carbon dioxide. And according to the pre-Trump EPA, methane leakage from fracking wells and our porous natural gas distribution system were causing often-deadly explosions in the U.S. every other day and offsetting gains made by cutting back on coal.
In 2008, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation examined the safety records of the various means of producing electricity. That study, which included the fewer than 90 deaths from the "illegal" Russian plant at Chernobyl (the only nuclear plant to cause deaths), revealed that nuclear power is 115 times safer than wind, 340 times safer than solar, 3,000 times safer than natural gas and 124,000 times safer than coal.
That study is 10 years old, and when the 2018 study is released, the rating for nuclear power will be even higher because, in the interim, none of the predicted radiation-related deaths from Chernobyl has occurred.
In the 1960s, scientists at Oak Ridge, Tenn., built a super-safe, highly efficient, self-governing, molten salt reactor that ran for 22,000 hours without incident. But the project was canceled, partly for political reasons but also because we chose to up-size U.S. Director of Naval Reactors Admiral Hyman Rickover's water-cooled reactors that made sense for powering submarines due to the abundance of ocean water for cooling. (Unlike current water-cooled reactors, molten salt reactors can't create hydrogen, the gas that exploded at Chernobyl and Fukushima.)
These small to large reactors can easily be sited (even buried underground) at cities and even in large factories, thus reducing the need for long, energy-losing transmission lines while reducing stress on our already troubled grid.
All of this is doable, but funding these "new" reactors has been hampered by long campaigns against nuclear power by coal, oil, and gas companies that know that nuclear power will kill their profits; by a fearful public; by the leaders of "green" organizations who refuse to consider nuclear power; and by uninformed legislators who have expanded inefficient, highly subsidized, environment-damaging, carbon-reliant, short-lived wind and solar projects — instead of supporting nuclear power, the safest, most efficient way to produce carbon dioxide-free electricity.
George Erickson is a member of the Thorium Energy Alliance and the National Center for Science Education. His website is tundracub.com. He can be reached at (218) 744-2003 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For a presentation or free pdf of his fifth book, “Unintended Consequences: the Lie That Killed Millions and Accelerated Climate Change,” email him or download it at unintended-consequences.org.