Environmentalist groups remain staunchly opposed to the current administration's efforts to pursue nuclear power as a solution to the ever-growing energy crisis. By overlooking the environmental and efficiency benefits
of nuclear power, these leftist organizations
continue to perpetuate their long legacy of irrational, radical, and hypocritical thought. Unfortunately, the American public has held similar opposition to nuclear power—mainly catalyzed by fear from the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
However, the Bush administration is funding the development of a new generation of nuclear power that will assuage the majority of society's fears and doubts.Nuclear power offers the clear advantage
of producing vast amounts of energy
without emitting harmful products, like carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, uranium resources are plentiful throughout the world. Known reserves could last over fifty years at current consumption rates, not considering that reprocessing the fuel could significantly enhance this number.
The largest deposits of uranium occur in Canada—a place much more hospitable and convenient than the Middle East. Nuclear power, without considering the ongoing advancements in reactor technology, provides for energy independence without denigrating
the environment.Yet, with all these great attributes of nuclear power, the last permit to build a commercial nuclear reactor in the United States was issued in 1979.
Although society's fears of catastrophes like Chernobyl are in part responsible for the unpopularity of nuclear power today, one can also blame the lack of a centralized nuclear waste repository and Jimmy Carter's decision in 1977 to ban reprocessing of fuel. The issue regarding the storage of spent nuclear fuel has been a hot one during the last couple of years. The federal government found the solution
in building a repository inside Yucca Mountain, a remote location in Nevada.
However, Democrats fiercely opposed the measure. In a vote in the Senate during 2002, thirty-five of the thirty-eight "no" votes came from Democrats. John Kerry, in his recent bid for the White House, announced his opposition to sending material to Nevada, although he supported the advancement of nuclear power. This position—not unlike many of Kerry's stances—is inherently contradictory in that new nuclear reactors cannot be built without a large repository to take care of waste. In fact, many environmental
groups oppose Yucca Mountain because it serves as an easy way to prohibit
the construction of new reactors.
Jimmy Carter's 1977 executive order to ban the reprocessing of fuel in the United States also certainly dealt a blow to nuclear energy development in the United States. Reprocessing fuel allows more energy to be extracted from uranium. Since less uranium is needed to produce the same amount of energy, less uranium needs to be enriched—subsequently decreasing the amount of hazardous material in existence. Carter based his decision on fears of weapons proliferation, as the plutonium separated during reprocessing—if it falls into the wrong hands—can be used to make nuclear weapons
Nevertheless, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom all continue to coordinate successful fuel reprocessing
programs. After processing 75,000 metric tons of fuel in the last four decades, not one of the participating countries can cite a compromise in security. Although President Ronald Reagan lifted Carter's ban on reprocessing,
costs and regulatory concerns made it, in many ways, too late for the United States to participate. Reagan and President George H. W. Bush did little to help the situation, as the political
ramifications were too great. President
Clinton retained some support for nuclear energy research, but vetoed a bill that would have accelerated the opening of Yucca Mountain—an absolutely
necessary step to move forward with nuclear energy.
President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are really the first administration since Three Mile Island to courageously throw significant
support behind nuclear energy. For the recent 2005 fiscal year budget request from the DOE, funding for the development of the next generation
of nuclear power was increased by over ten percent. This development,
referred to collectively as the "Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems
Initiative," will produce nuclear power plants that will be much safer and economical than the second generation
nuclear reactors that make up the mainstay of United States nuclear power production. A collection of ten countries, including
the United States, outlined a roadmap
for research on fourth generation nuclear power in 2002.
The roadmap detailed six reactor concepts for the international coalition to further research. All of the proposed reactors are technologically feasible and incorporate
characteristics that will make meltdowns and other catastrophes virtually
impossible. Unlike modern reactors
that rely on a sufficient amount of coolant to retain stability, the next generation
of nuclear energy systems will have inherent physical characteristics that force the reactor to naturally shutoff
at excessive temperatures. Non-functioning pumps, corroded pipes, or Homer Simpsons behind the controls will no longer compromise the safety of nuclear power plants.
Passive safety measures provide for a nuclear power infrastructure that should alleviate the public's worry.The roadmap also places a lot of stress on fuel reprocessing. Five of the six proposed nuclear energy systems are suited for a fuel cycle that maximizes
the amount of energy extracted from the fuel while taking measures to minimize the risk of weapons proliferation. The coalition profiles a reprocessing method that never separates out plutonium suitable for weapons production. A coordinated system of nuclear reactors capable of fuel reprocessing extends the familiar fifty-year lifespan of uranium resources into millennia.
In the meantime, new reactors will be able to reuse spent fuel that would otherwise be stored at Yucca Mountain. While once-through uranium takes 10,000 years to lose its radioactivity, the reprocessed waste of fourth-generation nuclear reactors will only be toxic to humans for less than a thousand years. Considering the relatively
low-impact of nuclear power on the environment, it appears to be the most effective solution to the energy crisis.
One aspect of fourth-generation nuclear power of great interest to the current administration involves hydrogen
production. Several of the proposed
reactors can efficiently produce not only electricity, but also hydrogen. President George W. Bush, along with numerous scientists and policy makers, strongly supports the development of a hydrogen economy. Contrary to popular belief, hydrogen does not naturally occur on the Earth.
Nuclear reactors can produce hydrogen that would otherwise come from fossil-fuels or fossil-fuel plants. This hydrogen can then be used to fuel almost anything, from cars to factories. The public, environmental groups and the Democratic Party need to understand the importance of backing the administration's efforts to develop a new nuclear energy system. Science has finally provided modern civilization
with a resource that can prove economical without harming the environment. It's high-time America embraces it.