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More Nukes!

Enviromentalists -- of all people -- are having second thoughts about their opposition to nuclear power.

By 10.12.05

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This article appeared in the September issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.

THE FIRST COMMERCIAL NUCLEAR-POWER reactor, in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, was built 50 years ago. A coal-powered plant had been planned, but the prospect of more air pollution was not welcome -- the Pittsburgh area had had enough of that. So the utility, Duquesne Light, switched to nuclear. At about the same time -- in 1954 -- the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis L. Strauss, said in a well-publicized speech that atomic energy would make electricity "too cheap to meter." President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace speech came at the same time.

There ensued the rise, and then the unanticipated fall of nuclear power. In 1979, an accident at Three Mile Island halted its further expansion. Today, 104 nuclear power plants are functioning in the U.S., providing 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Hundreds more plants had been envisioned. But no new facilities not already ordered by 1979 have been constructed.

Then came the 1986 disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine. A Soviet reactor exploded and 31 people died. I believe there have been no confirmed deaths outside the plant itself. Radioactivity spread in the immediate area, and there were reports of thyroid cancer. But there was an iodine deficiency in the area, and that is a risk factor for thyroid cancer. Anyway, there is life after Chernobyl. It is on its way to becoming a tourist attraction. Its background level of radioactivity is now lower than that emitted by the granite of Grand Central Station.

As for Three Mile Island, there was a small release of radioactivity, which was possibly even beneficial to its surroundings. No one was hurt, but for the anti-nukes, who had been opposing nuclear power with every trick in the book, it was a dream come true. Loony-bin activists took to the streets; Dick Gregory pledged at a demonstration that he would eat no solid food until all nuclear plants in the U.S. were shut down.

Meanwhile, nuclear power expanded without interruption in the U.S. Navy. Today 83 ships are equipped with 105 reactors, and there have been no accidents. These warships are welcomed at 150 foreign ports without panic or Jane-Fonda-style histrionics. On nuclear submarines, sailors work and sleep with their bunks only feet away from shielded reactors.

And now nuclear power is set to rise again. Against all odds, more and more public figures are calling for its revival. There are several reasons, among them the rising price of oil and natural gas; the realization that windmills and solar are unable to provide anything more than piddle-power; and the reluctance of policymakers to keep sending billions to Saudi Arabia. But most importantly, we have seen a replay of the environmental concern that launched nuclear power in 1954. Anything other than nuclear energy causes too much pollution.

Environmentalists, once united in their opposition to all things nuclear, are today increasingly on its side. For this we have "global warming" to thank -- a scare that the greens themselves created. Some years back they decided that carbon dioxide is a bad thing. In fact, it is an essential gas, without which plants would not grow. But let us not second-guess the ins and outs of green phobias and fashions. The point is that greens have the politicians' ears, they have decided that when carbon dioxide rises into the upper atmosphere it is a "greenhouse gas" and hazardous to the planet. It is emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels, but not by the fission of uranium. So, like a flock of birds veering in mid-flight, enviro-leaders turned pro-nuke almost overnight.

Senator John McCain of Arizona sees merit in a nuclear restoration, and that trusty weathervane can for sure see which way the winds of fashionable opinion are blowing. It's not for us to reason why. Accept the greens' support, seize the moment, and build the nukes before some new craze erupts. I never thought anything good would come of global warming, but it now looks as though it has.

NUCLEAR POWER always had one great vulnerability. Many people find it difficult to distinguish between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Atoms for peace, atoms for war... Who knows? The generic similarity is real enough. Both split atoms, both are radioactive. This puts nuclear power at the mercy of demagogues. Fortunately they didn't show up until the late 1960s. A small number of scientists who should have known better were primarily responsible. Only then did the media and Hollywood get into the act and concoct their China-Syndrome scenarios (a core meltdown causes a reactor to sink through the ground).

On the issue of nuclear power the people will believe pretty much what they are told. The press disguises the point, imputing to "the public" a power that is in fact in its own hands. A Wall Street Journal headline (May 2001) strikes me as typically misleading: "Nuclear Power: Revival or Relapse? Industry Argues New Designs Would Be Safer, Cost Less: But Will Public Buy That?" As though the public has a clue about the design of nuclear reactors! On such arcane topics, the public will buy whatever it is told. That is why the conversion of some green leaders is important. Although they have abused their own power in many ways, they still have the ability to change minds.

What is nuclear power and how does it work? Scientists long regarded the elements as stable. Alchemists, Isaac Newton among them, had another idea, and believed that elements could be transmuted. Their dream was that "base" metals, lead in particular, could be turned into gold. Early in the 20th century, this theory was, weirdly, turned inside out. Scientists found that some elements -- particularly the heaviest -- were not fixed after all. Of their own volition they transformed into other elements, which in turn broke down into still others. Transmutation lived.

The alchemists and sorcerers had been on to something -- they just got it all back to front. It turns out that lead was not the initiating element but, in most cases, the end product. And heat didn't need to be added -- it was emitted. The philosopher's stone, the missing ingredient sought for many centuries, had been discovered. But now that it was real, it was itself transformed from the most desired to the most dreaded thing in the world. Its name was radioactivity.

Uranium is one of the mutable elements. It comes in two main varieties, or isotopes, designated U-235 and U-238. Over 99 percent is of the latter, quiescent kind. U-235 in contrast is more volatile, and scientists figured out that if they were able to separate out just that kind, until it was over 90 percent "enriched," and a critical mass of it was brought together, it would explode. When one neutron is expelled from the uranium nucleus, it strikes the nucleus of an adjacent atom, and splits that atom, converting it into other elements; that releases a couple more neutrons, which in turn strikes further nuclei, and so on, in a chain reaction. Bang! Energy is released. Protons that were bound tightly together in the original configuration of the nucleus spring apart. That releases a lot of energy in a very short time.

But with a much less enriched blend, down to only 3.5 percent instead of 90, the chain reaction still occurs but more slowly. Instead of exploding it merely fizzles. Heat is generated, and if this heating element is immersed in water, the water boils. That creates steam, which drives a turbine, which generates something useful called electricity. And that's all there is to it. A nuclear reactor is a big kettle. Its internal element, consisting of uranium rods, heats up and boils water. Nuclear power puts to good use qualities of matter that have existed all along but were only discovered a hundred years ago. The most difficult part of the whole process was the separation of the two isotopes of uranium, which (fortunately) is something that could only be done by technologically advanced societies.

Nuclear energy, set back for a generation by the deliberate arousal of unjustified fears, is appropriate to our current state of technological development. It is in an expansionary phase elsewhere in the world, notably China. Around the world, about 100 new nuclear power stations are on the books; in the U.S., three more are planned, of much improved design. We should build another hundred. No one in America has died as a result of nuclear power, but as my old friend Petr Beckmann argued years ago in The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result of our dependence on coal.

"What has Green anti-nuclear activism achieved since the seventies?" Peter Huber and Mark Mills asked this year in City Journal. "Not the reduction in demand for energy that it had hoped for, but a massive increase in the use of coal, which burns less clean than uranium." So we thank the environmentalists -- notably Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Gaia theorist James Lovelock, and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore -- who have accepted this claim. Even a New York Times editorial recently saw the need to keep "much-feared" nuclear power as "part of the nation's energy mix."

WHY MUCH-FEARED? This brings us to the half-life of radioactivity. I think the New York Times has to date failed to inform its readers of one crucial point: radioactive elements with a short half-life are dangerous and those with a long half-life are not. Uranium-235, for example, has a half-life of 700 million years. Plutonium: 24,000 years. In the body, a gas called tritium (a variant of hydrogen) has a half-life measured in days. So stay away from tritium. The Geiger counter is firing rapidly. (But only for a short time.)

Bernard Cohen, a retired professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh, offered to eat some plutonium if Ralph Nader would eat the same amount of caffeine. Nader, who had said that a pound of plutonium could cause 8 billion cancers, refused the offer. Later, Cohen offered to eat plutonium on camera if the TV people would publicize it, but they weren't interested. Yes, plutonium is dangerous, because you can make a bomb out of it, but its long half-life ensures that its radioactivity is not toxic for humans.

As my dear wife asks: would you rather sit on a bucket of firecrackers if half will go off in the next hour? Or a bucket in which half will go off in the next 10,000 years?

Yet the long half-life of radioactive material is usually cited as damning testimony. It isn't. The key variable is the rate at which radiating particles strike the body. At a low rate they are harmless -- may even be beneficial. Natural background radiation subjects us all to that anyway. Unfortunately, government policy decrees that there is no safe level of radiation, and in so doing it created a rationale for the anti-nukes to oppose any and all man-made radiation, even when it is lower than found naturally in places where uranium is abundant. Such as the Rockies (where cancer rates are lower than elsewhere).

The President ought to campaign to have this "no safe level" rule changed. His apparent unwillingness to do so no doubt explains why Nevada politicians are unwilling to play host to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

To be sure, collecting spent nuclear fuel in one place does increase the relative hazard; and that is a valid argument against the U.S. policy of putting all spent fuel in one place. But most of this material has been cooling off for so long -- it has been kept at the power plants where it was created -- that it is scarcely dangerous at all. Within ten years, 99 percent of all radioactivity disappears. But the most important reason for the lack of political cooperation in Nevada is the decades of misinformation to which we have all been subjected. Maybe some of the green leaders could pay them a visit? It is important, because the expansion of nuclear power will depend on the creation of a spent-fuel depository that is politically acceptable.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).