We shouldn’t shun reliable nuclear power


Sources in a Nov. 14 Minnesota Daily article, “Some students, alumni and groups shun nuclear,” suggested intermittent wind and solar could replace nuclear power. Even the Minnesota Legislature has maintained the state’s ban on consideration of new nuclear plants. But nuclear energy advocates point to the clean-air, around-the-clock operation of nuclear plants, as opposed to the harmful emissions from coal-fueled facilities.

Opponents retain old nuclear fears such as the issue of storing spent nuclear fuel pellets. They propose that we use renewables, especially wind power, instead.

There are reasons the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved 60-year operating extensions for 73 of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants.

First, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported nuclear plants average 0.09 accidents per 200,000 worker hours, compared to the goal of 2.0 for other U.S. industries.

Second, once amortized, nuclear plants can produce electricity for 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt hour.

Third, U.S. nuclear plants have an uptime capacity factor of about 90 percent, about three times more than intermittent wind and solar farms.

Nuclear plants emit water vapor but no greenhouse gases, mercury or acid rain.

The U.S. Navy’s nuclear reactors power vessels reliably and safely as they patrol the world’s oceans. Those naval power facilities were the prototypes for the large-scale reactors that provide nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity demand.

In 2009, the journal Science noted an issue: “The electrical grid demands exquisite balance. At every instant, the supply of electricity throughout the system — thousands of power plants, substations and transmission lines — must equal demand. If not, wires overheat, voltage drops and circuit breakers snap open to protect parts of the grid.”

Unpredictable variability is a major reason the federal U.S. Energy Information Administration is forecasting that wind and solar energy will provide a combined single-digit percentage of our electric energy consumption in 2020, not the 20 percent or more that legislatures like Minnesota’s dream about.

In the future, we can reprocess and separate the approximately 5 percent fission product of the spent fuel capsules that require storage, as France does. The remaining 95 percent of spent fuel is low-radiation uranium and plutonium, which can be recycled.

Geologic studies show storage of spent nuclear fuel at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain would be manageable.

A Department of Energy review of the site said Yucca Mountain hasn’t changed much over the past million years, and studies show that geological processes wouldn’t change that.

The issues blocking storage in Yucca Mountain are political, not geological.

The notion that wind turbines can replace the coal and nuclear electric power has no basis in science or experience. Because wind blows intermittently, electric utilities must keep some of their conventional power plants in spinning reserve, ready to ramp up and down to balance wind output.

There is a role for wind and solar energy in our electrical future, but they are supplements, not a substitute, requiring substantial direct taxpayer subsidies.

In 2012, wind and solar energy provided 2 percent of the United States’ electricity consumption. A number of states, including Minnesota, have passed renewable-energy standards. Minnesota’s standard calls for an impractical wind energy minimum of 20 to 30 percent of electric energy within 10 years.

Passing legislation is quite easy; repealing the laws of physics and nature is not as simple.