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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Reopening discussion of nuclear power

Starting in 1978, the risk posed to humankind by nuclear weapons has made claims on my concern, time and energy.

Because there were overlapping dangers between military and civilian nuclear programs, anti-nuclear activism tended to have a dual focus. An example was the 1982 referendum in Ashland that resulted in the city’s becoming by law a zone free of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Though I was never as concerned about nuclear power as nuclear weapons, the dangers posed by the former were real, so I was comfortable making common cause with its opponents.

The grassroots movement to abolish nuclear weapons has never ceased, although it ebbed for a time when the Cold War ended. But in the U.S., public attention to the dangers of nuclear power largely disappeared after 1985. By then the nation’s electric utilities had abandoned plans to build more nuclear power plants. More than 120 orders for new reactors were canceled, and a number of plants being built were abandoned. The main reason was the skyrocketing costs of construction, partly due to new safety mandates.

Currently, 98 commercial reactors are operating in the U.S. with a net capacity of 100,350 megawatts. We still generate almost a third of the world’s nuclear power. Nuclear energy accounts for almost 20% of our total domestic electricity and 60% of our emissions-free generation.

Given looming climate catastrophe and the urgent need to stop burning fossil fuels, the debate about nuclear power is reviving. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, now the dangers posed by nuclear power, while admittedly real, are being compared to the dangers of mining, transporting and burning fossil fuels. For example, in addition to greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear power proponents point to mercury and other toxic metals in coal waste. So the risks versus benefits of nuclear power are being re-calculated.

Beginning with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which provided tax incentives and loan guarantees for several types of energy production including nuclear, and continuing through various initiatives of the Obama administration, there has been U.S. government support for a nuclear power revival. To date, the results have been insignificant. But in other nations, especially China, the interest is keener and the need more urgent because of rapidly growing need for power generation. Last year, there were three reactors under construction in the U.S. but 21 in China. World-wide, 53 reactors were being built, including two in France, which currently derives 40% of its electrical power from nuclear. Relative to population, Finland has made the biggest commitment to nuclear power. If things go as planned, by 2025 about 60% of its electrical power will be nuclear generated.

Research in the field never stopped. It has focused on lowering construction costs and increasing safety. There are new reactor designs, control features, and techniques for reprocessing waste. Costs are going down. There will always be accidents, because it’s impossible to eliminate human error and the malfunctioning of highly complex machines. It’s unlikely, however, that there will ever be another Chernobyl, the worst accident ever, because no reactors of that type exist anymore. As for long-lasting waste such as plutonium, the chances that some will escape into the biosphere can only be minimized, not eliminated.

On balance, I think this is a subject worth exploring with an open mind. We’ll have an opportunity at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 2, in the Gresham Room of the Ashland Library. Dan Belenky will lead it.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.