The Future of Nuclear Energy

In “Five Myths About Nuclear Energy” (6/23), Kristin Shrader-Frechette outlined objections to an increased reliance on nuclear energy to meet the nation’s energy needs. The article drew a large response from America’s readers. A sampling follows.

Diversified Holding

In her analysis of nuclear energy, Kristin Shrader-Frechette is puzzled as to why contemporary thinkers are moving away from the old-fashioned objections to nuclear energy that she repeats in her article. The answer is simple.

Wise investors like to diversify their alternatives. Coal, for instance, is the energy source of choice at present in America, but is the dirtiest energy type that exists. Wind power is of increasing significance, but it has the difficulties of the intermittent nature of wind, the problem of power transmission and opposition from neighborhoods. Hydroelectric power creates problems for fish and farmland availability.

Solar energy is developing fast. But really, the best use of solar power is in a corn or wheat field. The last thing we want to do is to take wheat fields out of food production.

Shrader-Frechette is also concerned about terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants. But 9/11 showed us that terrorists like to attack soft, unprotected targets. They are so much easier to hit, and they can produce massive effects that change a whole culture for the worse. Terrorists, after all, are not dumb.

To Shrader-Frechette’s question, therefore, of where we go from here, the answer is: in several directions at once. What does any wise investor do?

Frank R. Haig, S.J.

Baltimore, Md.

Accept What Exists?

As a retired scientist with sixty years of experience in uranium geology and related nuclear energy, I have major disagreements with Shrader-Frechette’s attempt to debunk nuclear energy. Several critical issues deserve mentioning.

She states that “by the year 2050 atomic energy could supply, at best, 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs.” But the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States have annually produced 19 percent of our electricity for many years. New power plants will be built in the near future, and they will easily surpass the 20 percent mark.

Shrader-Frechette also argues that nuclear power is not sustainable because dwindling uranium supplies will force us to use low-grade uranium ore by 2050. However, a joint report from 2005 from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that identified conventional uranium stock would be sufficient for 85 years at 2004 demand levels. New fast reactor technology could lengthen this to more than 2,500 years.

We must accept what exists; the momentum of the nuclear age is a reality.

Warren I. Finch

Lakewood, Colo.

Moral Imperatives

There are many good reasons not to build nuclear power plants. The economics don’t play out, the energy payback is too long, and carbon dioxide emissions are created in the mining, milling and enriching of uranium. But there are also moral issues to consider.

Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. Uranium mines and radioactive waste disposal sites are usually in poor and minority areas. These groups don’t have the political clout to stop these hazards from coming to their communities. For example, Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been chosen to store nuclear waste even though this isn’t the best place to do so—the Western Shoshone Indians have lived there for generations and believe it is sacred ground. They too are our neighbors, and deserve our love, not our waste.

Thou shall not kill. The processes involved in nuclear power generation are very much the same as those used in building nuclear bombs. Enriched uranium can be used for either nuclear power or nuclear bombs.

Thou shall not steal. Mankind’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute: it is limited by concern for quality of life and requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation. By creating non-natural radioactive waste, we are stealing from all future generations the land we need for storage and security of the waste, and possibly polluting the air, ground and water.

John Weber

Boise, Id.

The French Paradox

Kristin Shrader-Frechette’s article decrying nuclear energy did not convince me. France derives over 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy. This is due to a longstanding policy based on energy security. France is also the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation, and has been very active in developing nuclear technology. Reactors and fuel products and services are major exports.

Why don’t the French have the qualms of conscience over nuclear energy that Shrader-Frechette seems to have? And why is Italy under the new prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, getting into nuclear energy production once again? And why is Japan doing just fine with its nuclear reactors? Do they know something we don’t know?

Gino Dalpiaz, C.S.

Chicago, Ill.

Let the Market Decide

In every country where it is used, nuclear power exists only because of massive government subsidies. Without these subsidies, which in the United States are many times greater than the amounts given to renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, no country would use nuclear power. If nuclear plants were such a great deal and were safe, the industry would be able to get full insurance coverage on the free market. But it’s not able to. The industry refuses to generate power without the protection of a liability limit that is roughly 1 percent of losses.

Nuclear power seems a lot like a mortgage-backed bond: it’s flashy, it’s complex and for a while it seems to make sense. But in the end it bites you.

Julia Yang

New Haven, Conn.

Imperfect but Necessary

Many environmentalists, including myself, argue that nuclear power is an imperfect but necessary interim source for our nation’s energy, one that should bear a significant portion of the total energy portfolio until truly renewable sources can come online.

Shrader-Frechette admits the nuclear fuel cycle emits only one-seventh of the carbon-equivalent emissions of coal. Both the already-realized and potentially dire future consequences of global warming should justify immediate substitutes for coal combustion, and nuclear technology is already currently available.

Though she presents the higher costs of nuclear energy (including all costs associated with both fuel and waste) as a negative, such comprehensive costs incurred by the consumer would spur conservation measures and energy-saving technologies much more quickly and efficiently than would be spawned by voluntary conservation programs.

Schrader-Frechette correctly emphasizes that the greatest cost benefit will accrue from putting dollars toward energy efficiency programs. Government incentives for nuclear power should be used judiciously until more reactors come online and economies of scale make the technology more competitive with coal.

(Rev.) Jim F. Chamberlain

Clemson, S.C.

Nuclear Fears

In her analysis of the safety of nuclear power, Kristin Shrader-Frechette states that safety claims about nuclear power are myths, then uses arbitrary information to support her argument; for example, claims of government subsidies really do not support or refute whether nuclear plants are safe. Also, offering statements about explosions and meltdowns to scare the reader does little to share scientific information about the safety of nuclear plants.

While we can calculate and project what might occur should there be a catastrophic event at a nuclear power plant, the fact remains that the United States has had no nuclear event of any significance to public safety or health. The meltdown of radioactive fuel at Three Mile Island led to no deaths or injuries because of built-in safety mechanisms and redundant systems. New plants proposed for the coming years will have even more safety built into their operations—twice that of current plants that already operate safely.

She also paints an ominous picture of the dangers of transporting wastes or materials around the country, when in fact there have been more than 20,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel and high level waste in this country since 1971 without any radiological incident.

Projecting worst-case scenarios into the future for any technology, with no acknowledgment of current and past safety, will generate long lists of why any technology might not be good. The United States must take a broad view of our energy needs with the understanding that nuclear, wind, solar, gas and coal power may all be necessary to meet our increasing demand for electricity.

Radiation is one of the most studied physical hazards in our history. While it is necessary to assure that people are not exposed to radiation unnecessarily, it is not responsible to paint nuclear power as a villain and needlessly cause worry for your readers.

Kelly Classic

Rochester, Minn.

Hostage to Oil

Relying on 12 million barrels of imported oil per day is sapping the strength of the American economy and taking us to terrible political decisions. I say “full speed ahead” on renewable resources, but we won’t get there fast enough to maintain an acceptable standard of living. We must not give up on our ability to solve the technological problems that nuclear energy presents.

John Dwyer

Tolland, Conn.

The church teaches her children to have a “preferential option for the poor.” What does this mean in the world of energy? For one, it means supporting public policies that ease the burden of essential commodities—like home heating—on our low-income neighbors. The United States now burns as much natural gas to generate electricity as it uses for its more familiar purpose, providing fuel for home heating. A consequence is higher heating bills for everyone. Why are we using so much natural gas to produce electricity? Nuclear power should produce a much larger share of U.S. electricity than the current 18 percent.

Schrader-Frechette’s analysis fails to provide the whole societal impact of current, real-world impact on the poor.

Dan Bishop

Mason, MI

9 years 1 month ago
Some thoughts which Kristin Shrader-Frechette article did not address but may be relevant. Indeed, non-proliferation is a genuine issue for the widespread deployment of nuclear energy (which has even been called "renewable" when reprocessing is considered). However, if the U.S. wants to lead in influencing world policy regarding non-proliferation (and the use of nuclear energy), the U.S. needs to have world-leading nuclear capability. I question if the U.S. has that capability today. And doesn't the fact of the U.S., as the world's dominant national power, imply a moral obligation on the U.S. to lead in non-proliferation? And if so, shouldn't the U.S. be making the appropriate investments in nuclear energy, in part to lead by example? There are limits to what conservation can do -- it is not a source of energy but considers how well energy is used. Conservation can help to provide the time for nuclear to help meet the future baseload power needs of the U.S. I think a case can be made that God is okay with nuclear energy. For example, solar energy is ultimately a form of nuclear energy for it is nuclear fusion (as opposed to fission) which powers the stars. And God used that nuclear fusion process in stars to make the heavy elements necessary for life, and, according to Genesis, saw that that life was good. Jesus pointed out that the weeds stay with the wheat until the harvest; I wonder if Jesus would say in an updated parable on energy that every source has its pluses and minuses, but we should use all energy sources wisely.
9 years 1 month ago
Your article in the June 23 issue and the selection of letters responding to it in the August 4-11 issue shed some light on this subject; thank you. However, I believe that one issue is neglected, namely, the one to which Gino Dalpiaz refers in his letter: Do they (the French) know something that we don't? Some recent articles on Nuclear Power (e.g. in Mother Jones and Wired ) note that (1) The French don't have the "waste" problem that we have, because they "reprocess it"; i.e., when we have a truckfull of waste of which to dispose, they have a cupful. (2) In spite of the fact that the French nuclear power company is owned by the government, it has avoided the type of "politicalization" that is present with the N.R.C. in our country, which is unwilling to approve the French methodology for fear that in so doing they will "appear" to have made in error in previously approving the technology that Americans now use. As usual in the U.S., "politics" is taking us down the wrong road, and we aren't smart enough to stop it.

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