Reconsider Nuclear Power


(This 919th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 2, 2008.)


On August 24, the News printed an exchange for and against nuclear power. I feel that both writers, Mark Perry (pro) and Wayne Madsen (con) missed the most important points and thus failed to address the issues.


But first I had better explain why, as a science writer, I am speaking out on this issue. I do so now because most local and national nature organizations adopted strong positions against nuclear power many years ago and those positions have become fixed - knee-jerk is the contemporary designation. I feel that the time has come for these groups to reopen consideration of this issue. In this posture I am not alone: I join, for example, New York Times nature reporter Andrew Revkin.


I do not pose as an expert on atomic energy. My purpose in writing this column is rather to urge my colleagues to support a serious reconsideration of the many issues. Please understand: it may well be that a fair this review will lead these organizations to continue their opposition to nuclear power. I only ask that the issues be exposed and assessed.


We all know that times are changing rapidly. It is not just fuel prices that have soared; more basic food prices have joined them in this upward spiral. We're not talking here about nominal increases. The operative words are doubling and tripling, increases that are not just punishing the poor but now have caught the attention of middle class wage earners whose salary increments have in no way matched these rises.


What has nuclear power got to do with this? It is one alternative to power from fossil fuels. And fossil fuels include not just oil. Natural gas prices have also soared and coal represents serious unsolved pollution problems with dangerous gasses entering our environment, problems that appear unlikely to be solved by, for example, carbon sequestration underground.


Nuclear power is not, of course, the only alternative to power from fossil fuels. Thank goodness this country is finally, after years of unwarranted delay, moving forward with the development of wind, solar and geothermal energy sources. And some remarkable possibilities remain just beyond our reach today. For example, conversion of solar power through the use of algae (as an alternative to corn) is a serious candidate. One Colorado entrepreneur-researcher in this field told me this past summer, "We have solved about 90 of the outstanding 100 problems." Obviously the most difficult ten remain, but German plants already use the process.


Another alternative to fossil fuels that is finally being considered is conservation. We remain an undisciplined society, but the one positive result of these exorbitant gas prices has been that we appear finally to be sensitive to costs. One result: buses, subways and trains are experiencing a significant increase in ridership.


In 2003 an interdisciplinary group from M.I.T. and Harvard chaired by chemist John Deutch and physicist Ernest Moniz studied the issues related to atomic energy and issued a report titled "The Future of Nuclear Power". They identify the four concerns that must be addressed as: "high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes." The group's primary finding: "The nuclear option should be retained precisely because it is an important carbon-free source of power."


One of the considerations in this and other recent reports is the possibility of recycling the fuel rods in so-called closed systems instead of simply disposing them. Some proponents claim that this would largely solve our disposal problems by reducing these wastes to near zero.


Another is the increasing science supporting safe underground disposal of spent fuel. And here I will go out on a limb: I believe that the "success" of the opponents of West Valley was illusory. I join those convinced that those communities would today be better off with the fiscal benefits of having nuclear fuel safely stored there.


It is important to point out that the M.I.T.-Harvard report is already five years old and that, in particular, with the major increase in fossil fuel costs, the economics has changed significantly over that period.


Nuclear power should be back on the table.-- Gerry Rising