The nuclear option

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By Jeffrey King

Dangerous, risky, costly, unpopular. These words describe our current perception of nuclear fission. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and ensuing tsunami, the heavily damaged and melting reactors of the Fukushima Dia-ichi plant only underscore these sentiments as news of the crippled plant continues to report bleak information on a daily basis.

The multifaceted catastrophe is expected to take more than a decade to clean and cost the island nation billions. Man certainly cannot tame Mother Nature’s fury, and the nuclear crisis is a result of underestimation and complacency. Nuclear planners did not anticipate the destructive capabilities of their low-lying placement of the plant in an active seismic zone.

The blatant evidence is clear with the presence of six active reactors clustered at this one vulnerable site. In the U.S., no single plant operates more than three reactors in one location. Some prominent nuclear scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency have even cited the design of the plant’s reactors (boiling water reactors) as being much less safe than the alternative pressurized water reactors more commonly used across the globe.

How will these events affect the greater global demand for clean energy in the wake of a catastrophe that is considered biblical by many affected? In America, nuclear power has waned in the past quarter century, due to cheap energy costs provided by carbon-based fuels. Currently, carbon-based fuel prices have skyrocketed because of increased global demand and instability in supply (namely, unrest in oil-producing countries)—causing many to rethink nuclear power as a viable option.

Current plants in America continue to approach the end of their intended life cycles. Back in his 2010 State of the Union Speech, President Obama announced that the expansion of nuclear energy across America would be an essential component of his green energy revolution.

France receives a majority of its power from nuclear fission and sees the Fukushima disaster as an opportunity. A new design for a pressurized reactor by its industrial group AREVA shows great promise for the future of safer designs, which can be exported to the global market.

In the U.S., only two new plants are under construction in addition to the existing 104. The most recent plant in this country was built in 1996. But throughout that time, America has continued to build reactors at a relatively brisk pace thanks, in part, to the military. Nuclear propulsion is essential to our Aircraft Carrier armada as well as our fleet of submersibles. In fact, the military is on its ninth generation of portable reactors with no reported history of a major incident.

Long gone are the days of unpredictable experimentation on fissionable materials, as we have over a half a century’s worth of knowledge and experience with safe and reliable reactors. Japan’s current nuclear disaster is not one of total human error as was the case with Chernobyl’s meltdown 25 years ago, but it represents a failure of the Japanese governmental agency responsible for the due-diligence of nuclear safety.

If the Obama administration is serious about implementing its green energy policy, nuclear power must be a sizable component. With savings generated by the replacement of fossil fuels with nuclear power, new capital can be utilized to invest in research and development of other renewable essential to our reduction of foreign dependency and green energy initiative.

The U.S. should view the Japanese crisis as an opportunity to learn from and build upon. Taxation issues aside, energy costs could well determine the future of our ability to innovate and produce. However, will the events in Japan curtail these plans just like the BP oil spill of last year restricted deep sea drilling in the Gulf? The revival of the nuclear power debate will be a prominent global issue for decades to come and its future remains ambiguous at best.

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