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Commentary: A Curious Nuclear Coalition

By H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX –

Many environmentalists are reconsidering their historic aversion of nuclear power. Fearing that rising worldwide demand for electricity will result in large scale environmental problems, they are reluctantly embracing nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Why? The clincher for environmentalists, who believe CO2 emissions from energy use are causing catastrophic global warming, is that nuclear power is a CO2-free energy option. By comparison, for every MWh of energy produced, coal fired power plants produce more than 2,000 pounds of CO2, and both oil and natural gas fired power plants produce more than 1,000 pounds.

In addition, studies indicate that air pollution contributes to thousands of premature deaths and illnesses annually. Thousands of tons of sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide are emitted by fossil-fuel power plants annually. By comparison, nuclear plants produce little or no air pollution.

Environmental concerns are not the only reason that nuclear power is enjoying a resurgence of popularity. Nuclear power is becoming economical and many national security experts view nuclear energy as a way to reduce U.S.'s reliance on foreign sources of energy.

Nuclear power has not been dormant since the accident at Three Mile Island 26 years ago. Indeed, the country's 103 operating reactors generate approximately 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

Nuclear plants have dramatically improved efficiency, from an average of 58.5 percent of rated capacity in 1980 to an average more than 90 percent today. Indeed, the increased electricity produced by nuclear plants since 1990 could power 26 cities the size of Boston or Seattle.

Historically, nuclear power has been expensive because of redundant safety mechanisms, constantly changing safety requirements and the massive containment facilities required for reactors. These costs inhibited new investment in nuclear plants.

Recently, however, new technologies, improved risk assessments and low operating costs have made nuclear power price-competitive. Indeed, the operating costs have fallen from 3.31 cents per kilowatt-hour in 1988 to 1.7 cents today - lower than coal, natural gas, or oil fired plants. With price no longer a stumbling block, a coalition of fiscal conservatives and national security hawks view nuclear power as a fuel of choice.

America has become increasingly reliant on imported supplies of oil and natural gas, two of the three fossil fuels used to generate electricity. Oil and natural gas prices fluctuate wildly, and supplies of these fuels too often depend upon the goodwill of often hostile foreign regimes. By comparison, at current levels of use, accessible reserves of uranium can provide an estimated 300-year worldwide supply of fuel, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

One kilogram of natural uranium contains as much energy as 38.5 tons of coal, but only about 3 percent of that energy is utilized in conventional reactors. Thus, if the United States joined France and Japan in recycling used fuel, existing and future spent fuel rods would provide a virtually unlimited supply of nuclear fuel.

Recycling used nuclear fuel would also conveniently and dramatically reduce the amount of nuclear waste from power plants. Even greater supplies of nuclear fuel can be made available from the more-than-15,000 plutonium pits removed from dismantled U.S. nuclear weapons.

Nuclear power is not the solution to all of the U.S.'s energy woes, but it is certainly worthy of serious consideration as Congress grapples with the task of writing new energy policy.


H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis based in Dallas. If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.