04/28/2011 - 07:55

Mutually assured energy independence

Every energy source has unique characteristics that deserve careful consideration and comparison. Renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, do not emit greenhouse gases but produce power intermittently and require large areas of land. Oil and gas are convenient and easily stored but are concentrated in limited locations, particularly in the Persian Gulf. Coal is abundant but massive quantities of materials must be processed, resulting in large-scale land disturbances and climate change.

For nuclear energy, its most unique characteristic is the massive energy output embodied in each kilogram of uranium fuel—nearly a million times the energy density of fossil fuels. Most of nuclear energy's advantages (such as its relatively small waste volumes) and disadvantages (such as its potential use in nuclear weapons) are a consequence of this characteristic.

Only 200 tons of milled uranium are needed to fuel a 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor for a year. That makes the cost of uranium fuel only two to four percent of the final cost of the electricity. Low fuel costs and high energy density enable a country to affordably stockpile a couple years' worth of nuclear fuel in a space no larger than a small warehouse. That can assure a country's energy independence, which has major implications for war and peace.

Fighting over oil. Throughout the industrial age, nations have waged wars to gain control over energy sources. During World War I, the British fleet converted from coal to oil. But the British Empire had very little oil, so the British Indian Army invaded the northern Persian Gulf and in 1920 carved Iraq out of the Ottoman Empire. The newly formed state was strategically located halfway between British India and the British Suez Canal.

America's introduction to energy security came on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Japan was short on oil and concluded it had to take over Asian oil fields, but feared the US might block its actions. To prevent that, Japan launched its preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor, precipitating the US entry into World War II.

In 1953 America was drawn into the Middle East when the democratically elected government of Iran responded to a series of oil-company scandals by nationalizing all foreign oil holdings. The United States and Britain reacted by organizing a military coup, overthrowing the Iranian democracy, and establishing a monarchy.

In 1979, Iranian anger with the Shah and his foreign backers fueled the Iranian Revolution and the country's anti-American sentiments. US alliances with other Arab monarchs, and with Saddam Hussein of Iraq, have had similarly troubled outcomes. US military forces are in the Middle East because Iran and Saudi Arabia each have the equivalent of about 300 billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas; Iraq has about 140 billion barrels; and Qatar has 180 billion barrels. These reserves are controlled by national oil companies where price and availability are political decisions. By comparison, Exxon Mobil and BP have combined reserves of less than 28 billion barrels.

Why is this relevant to nuclear energy? Japan's nuclear power program can be traced to World War II, after which the Japanese concluded that war was not the right route to energy security. Similarly, the French nuclear power program is a consequence of the Algerian war, after which the French concluded that only fools would bet their future on Mideast oil. France and Japan chose nuclear energy, a difficult technology, not because it was popular but because the alternatives were worse. Nuclear power in these countries is part of a larger policy that includes high-speed electric trains, efficient vehicles, and other measures to reduce oil and gas consumption.

Environmental impacts. The high energy density of uranium not only makes it an affordable option for countries seeking energy independence, but also produces relatively small quantities of waste. Relative to the price of electricity, radioactive waste from power plants can be disposed of in geologic repositories at low cost; currently, this technology is used to dispose of hazardous chemical waste in Europe, and defense-related transuranic radioactive waste at the US Energy Department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. With energy sources such as coal and gas, it is not possible to dispose of all waste -- there is simply too much of it.

Nuclear energy's environmental impacts can be more closely monitored than the impacts of other energy sources, because it's easy to measure radioactivity at orders of magnitude below the levels hazardous to human health. The ability to detect radioactive contamination cheaply and quickly -- and thus avoid it -- is why no one has died of radiation in the Japanese accident; why the public health effects will be small; and why the Japanese will be able to fully clean up after the accident.

If measurements could be taken of the hazardous fallout from a chemical-plant fire, or the mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants, there would be a public outcry as those contaminants spread around the world. Hazardous non-radioactive fallout is noticeable, however, only when large numbers of people are visibly sickened. People are content to let scientists and epidemiologists sort out why some communities have high cancer levels -- and whether chemical fallout might be responsible.

Power and weapons. Along with concerns about public health, opponents of nuclear power also legitimately worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Historically nuclear weapons have been developed independently of nuclear power programs. Nuclear weapons technology is now more than 65 years old, and advances in every field -- from computers to carbon composites for aircraft -- are lowering the technological barriers for entry into the arms race.

History suggests that nuclear power can be a force for peace, by removing energy demands as a cause for war. Western fears about oil supply have repeatedly led the United States and other nations into interventions in the Mideast. If the United States was not so dependent on oil, the country might not have intervened in Iran and neighboring countries -- and the Middle East could be a very different place today.

The potential coupling of nuclear power and weapons can be reduced with strategies such as fuel leasing. Under this approach, major countries would produce nuclear fuel, lease that fuel to smaller countries, and take back spent fuel for disposal. Such a strategy requires international commitments to provide nuclear fuel to any country that meets nonproliferation obligations -- not just current friends. To be successful, a fuel-leasing strategy also requires domestic waste-management systems that can accept small quantities of foreign spent nuclear fuel.

Comparisons of different energy sources show the total risks for nuclear power are lower than the alternatives—even after considering accidents. The concern about accidents follows from the concentrated wastes that are a consequence of a concentrated energy source. Accidents can never be eliminated, but they will become less likely as people learn from experience. Nuclear fuel is not controlled by unfriendly and unstable regimes. Only small amounts of nuclear material need to be handled to assure large quantities of energy. These are the fundamental characteristics of nuclear power, and remain the strongest argument on its behalf.