Don Petersen and Bill Stratton for the Los Alamos Education Group
The hearings scheduled in New Mexico next month have an importance far beyond the efforts of the Bush administration and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. Admittedly, the hearings will be attended only by interested parties with either pro or con agendas, but even the involved players are mostly too young to remember the details of nuclear energy development as they have unfolded over half a century.
Most who participate in the current debate on energy shortfall and potential climate change are forty years old or less and were either children or just being born about the time US nuclear enterprise started to unravel. For those of us who have watched, it’s frustrating to encounter the antinuclear/environmental/political manipulation and misrepresentation of facts presented to push US Energy Policy in the direction of methods with no hope of providing adequate energy for a burgeoning population. Drastic reduction (Kyoto) in utilization of fossil fuels purports to avoid increasing the atmospheric CO2 burden, but no one with influence says much about reproduction destined to double world wide energy demand by 2030. Especially in the history of nuclear fuel reprocessing, it is instructive to recount the actual events that have resulted in the loss of thirty years of development and advancement of nuclear technology.
In addition to the weapons program, the Atomic Energy Commission was charged by the Congress to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, encourage private use and ensure health protection. The start was rocky, the funding was uncertain, and the politicking was not clearly successful until the Eisenhower Administration’s interest in Atoms for Peace, tipped the scale in the direction of development. The AEC, its successor, DOE, and the nuclear power industry have been phenomenally successful in power production with safety, despite widespread, well organized and liberally funded opposition. Enough data exist now to demonstrate compellingly that nuclear energy, on the basis of the amount available, long term fuel supply and operational safety, is the leading candidate to satisfy future energy demand without emissions that may contribute to climate change.
Westinghouse developed the Light Water Reactor, General Electric worked on a Sodium Cooled Reactor and prototypes were successfully operated at the National Reactor Testing Station (now the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory). Experimental Breeder Reactor I or EBR-I, produced the first nuclear generated, usable electricity in December, 1951. Nonetheless, for perceived safety reasons, Adm. Rickover selected Light Water Reactors for propulsion of the nuclear navy. The resulting, rapid development of LWRs, now the backbone of the nuclear generation capacity, currently provides a fifth of the nation’s electrical energy despite spent fuel disposal problems, suspect long term fuel availability, and an aging reactor fleet.
Twenty nine years of developmental progress was halted in 1979, when President Carter terminated the billion dollar, eighty percent complete and paid for, Clinch River Project and the Barnwell reprocessing plant. Based on the belief that reactor grade plutonium could be used for weapons, he also suspended all commercial reprocessing with the expectation that other nuclear nations would follow suit in order to remove the threat of proliferation. No nation followed suit but commercial nuclear power development in the US was effectively killed. During this period, EBR-II was demonstrating Integrated Fuel Reprocessing, a continuous system that reduced further, the possibility of theft.
Political pressure persisted under President Clinton when Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, ordered highly successful EBR-II shut down and dismantled and the Argonne National Laboratory was instructed to terminate development of the Pyroprocessing method for spent fuel recycling which would make proliferation even less likely and the amount of material requiring permanent disposal much smaller and shorter lived.
Since 2001, the DOE has revived planning for the expansion of nuclear power production through the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. The program recognizes the advantages of eventual conversion of the nuclear reactor fleet to fast breeder/burner systems and adoption of fuel recycling that separates relatively short lived fission products for disposal and puts everything else repeatedly back through a closed fuel cycle. The effort faces stiff opposition from antinuclear groups and other energy interests as well as the loss of critical infrastructure and expertise to resume construction of new reactors. That capability now resides abroad in France, Japan, Russia and China, to name a few.
Specialized manpower, test facilities for new components and core configurations, manufacturing and construction infrastructure, and modern, secure separation capability all need to be reconstituted to get us back to where we were in the mid ‘70s. A hiatus of 30 years has left the us woefully short of talent and production/construction resources. In 1975, we had EBR-II, the Fast Flux Test Facility, Savannah River separation, the Idaho/ Argonne Critical Assembly, ability to manufacture reactor components, and a robust private sector with test facilities and nuclear divisions at Rockwell, Westinghouse, General Electric. Babcock and Wilcox, and others, now gone because of wrongheaded decisions and political payback.
The best chance we have is to save the dollars the “boutique” technologies would squander before they fail to provide enough energy, decide immediately to adopt a modern nuclear approach to replacing the fossil energy deficit, and embark on rebuilding the infrastructure necessary to support drastic expansion of modernized US nuclear power production–unlikely if the Party of Carter, Clinton and Gore regains the Whitehouse. We suspect from what has been said publicly, that the Obama administration will attempt to finish what the Carter and Clinton administrations started–elimination of the crippled nuclear industry.
A strategy must be devised for presenting unbiased information on the relative capacities of energy production schemes in a broad, public forum. Today we are faced with the stark reality of a bemused and hopelessly divided society that includes responsible politicians and editors with no clue about what will work and what will not–try everything. We are now considering disposal of enough LWR spent fuel and depleted UF6 from enrichment to last hundreds of years as fast reactor fuel at a dollar loss in electricity that far exceeds the current financial crisis bailout. Leadership soon must make some hard decisions to solve our energy shortfall. If they don’t, our great grandchildren will be freezing in the dark–global warming notwithstanding.