The Nuclear Future That Never Arrived
29 Jul, 2008 02:57 pm
Understanding how the great hopes of early nuclear power advocates eventually turned into great disappointment may shed some light on nuclear power's future.
Today, however, nuclear power generates a little under 20 percent of the country's electricity, a figure that has varied only slightly all the way back to at least 1995. No plants are currently under construction in the United States though some new plants are expected to be built in energy-hungry Asia. So, what happened on the way to the 21st century?
When President Dwight D. Eisenhower made his now famous "Atoms for Peace" speech to the U. N. General Assembly in 1953, it seemed that with the right support and controls, nuclear power could become a revolutionizing agent in the development of the world, especially that part without electricity at the time. And, there was hope that breeder reactors, that is, reactors that can manufacture more fuel than they consume, would provide energy to all of humankind for centuries to come.
With the weight of the federal government behind it, nuclear power eventually found a ready audience in the form of America's utilities. The utilities may have surmised that if they did not participate in the building of nuclear power plants, the government would proceed on its own by forming public power entities that would compete with the utility industry. With the passage of the Price-Anderson Act which limited liability for nuclear plant operators, the stage was set for rapid expansion of the nuclear power industry in the United States.
By 1977 232 nuclear power plants were either in operation or planned in the United States according to a contemporary history of nuclear power, Science, Politics and Controversy: Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1946-1974. The author's perception about the trajectory of nuclear power probably mirrored that of most people at the time. In his preface dated May 25, 1979 the author wrote, "Given the world energy situation, it is unlikely that nuclear power development can or will be halted in the near future."
Strangely, the author was writing two months after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Perhaps the effect of the accident on the utility industry was not yet apparent; but, the ultimate effect was devastating for it led to the cancellation of many nuclear plants on order and a virtual cessation of all new orders. A single accident had dealt a death blow to the American nuclear industry and as a result to much of the industry abroad. The number of nuclear power plants in the United States today stands at 104, less than half of the total operating and planned some 30 years ago.
The 1980s saw sharp declines in the price of fossil fuels--oil, natural gas and coal--all of which compete with nuclear power in the generation of electricity. At the time it seemed as if the Three Mile Island accident had actually saved America's utilities from an unnecessary investment in expensive, increasingly unpopular, and potentially hazardous nuclear power plants.
Meanwhile, the French were moving ahead with their nuclear plans. There were no investor-owned utilities to get spooked by the Three Mile Island accident. Nuclear power in France was strictly a government affair. And, the French public was much more accepting of nuclear power than the America public had ever been. Perhaps the reason for this acceptance is summed up in a common French response to questions about why the country has embraced nuclear power so enthusiastically: "No oil, no gas, no coal, no choice."
Today, France has 59 nuclear reactors producing electricity that satisfies close to 80 percent of its needs. Some of the power is even exported.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the United States and France is each country's domestic fossil fuel supply. France has essentially no indigenous supplies of fossil fuels left. The United States remains one of the world's largest producers of oil, natural gas and coal. And, because of that it has a powerful fossil fuel lobby that has little interest in seeing nuclear power succeed.
Because the rest of the world did not follow France's lead and nuclearize, the future envisioned by the early proponents of nuclear power has never been realized. Nuclear power offered at least the possibility of electrifying most of the infrastructure including transportation. But in a globalized world even though France can produce prodigious amounts of electricity, it is still dependent on petroleum-powered trains, planes, trucks, and automobiles to move goods and people since this is the only way it can connect itself to other countries. (Of course, many of the trains are electrified in France and Europe as a whole, but they carry primarily passengers. Close to 80 percent of all freight in Europe is moved by truck.)
Quite often nuclear power is portrayed as part of a path to energy independence. But France's domestic production of uranium has shrunk to zero, and some of the world's largest mines are in troubled places in Central Asia and Africa.
Uranium, the main nuclear fuel, is often portrayed as virtually limitless. But a study done by Germany's Energy Watch Group suggests that uranium supplies could be exhausted within 70 years even if now uneconomic deposits are taken into account.
Of course, the world could always embrace breeder reactors which were mentioned at the outset of this piece. The problem is that such reactors breed fuel that could easily be used to produce nuclear weapons. That means they pose special security risks for operators, and their use would almost surely lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. In addition, those breeders which have been built with the intention of producing electricity commercially have proven to be dangerous and uneconomical to operate. To my knowledge, no commercial breeder reactors are in operation today.
In the 1950s scientists already knew that fossil fuels were finite and that if the whole world industrialized, these fuels might decline relatively soon, within a century or so. Harrison Brown in his classic book, The Challenge of Man's Future, imagined a day when nuclear and solar power were the only two sources of energy for society. If a nuclear future with breeder reactors, or better yet, fusion reactors, could be achieved, humans around the globe would be able to get all the basic resources they need to live ever more prosperous lives. Long after rich metal ores run out and fossil fuel supplies disappear, humans would still have abundant energy, enough to extract whatever they need for a modern technical civilization from the ultra-low-grade resources of rock, air and seawater.
But it seems that the dream of virtually unlimited energy from nuclear power is gone. Nuclear power may just barely maintain its share of energy production over the coming decades. And, this presumes that existing plants which will have to be shut down at some point will all be replaced.
Even if government policies worldwide were to turn around tomorrow and large subsidies were provided, there is another limit which could easily prevent the establishment of a nuclear economy. Nuclear plants require vast amounts of fossil fuels to build and then maintain. With a peak in the production of oil likely in the next decade, and peaks in natural gas and coal now likely within two or three decades at most, we are now faced with what is often called the rate-of-conversion problem. In short, we need to use current energy sources to create the facilities for future energy sources. If current energy sources are declining, it becomes exceedingly difficult to maintain the functioning of society and build a new energy infrastructure. With the lead times for new nuclear facilities measured in decades, it now seems unlikely that a vast number of new nuclear power plants are going to be built.
It is a sad commentary that so many who knew the planet would one day run short of fossil fuels were unable to convince the world to embrace nuclear power in a more thoroughgoing way. With enough development, with careful and serious attention to the waste problem, and with lower-cost, decentralized designs that maximize safety, nuclear power might have succeeded in making any decline in fossil fuel availability just another historical footnote--but only if deployed on a large enough scale and far enough in advance of such a decline.
Now it may be too late. The time for the development of the nuclear economy appears to have come and gone with few people even realizing it.
Brown, Harrison. The Challenge of Man's Future (New York: Viking Press, 1954).
Del Sesto, Steven L. Science, Politics and Controversy: Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1946-1974 (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1979).
Energy Watch Group. "Uranium Resources and Nuclear Energy." December 2006.