I was surprised — and very pleased — to read the letter to the editor by Hugh and Marion Stoddart in The Groton Line and The Groton Herald. It shows a degree of common sense rare in environmental activists when it comes to nuclear power.
Nuclear reactors, when properly designed (Chernobyl was an example of poor — indeed, negligent — design) and sited (Fukushima was an example of very poor siting), are quite safe — even if they melt down like Three Mile Island. Newer designs — a South African design shows promise, as do several others — are much less likely to have problems than older designs. Given that the nuclear power industry is, compared to fossil fuel power plants, really quite young, such progress is not surprising.
Unfortunately, the “nuclear is evil” crowd has more influence than it really ought to and has stifled progress in this area for decades. We need to find (or allow the use of) a temporary (which might be a hundred years or so) storage solution for nuclear wastes until we have a way to recycle them, and we also need to reconsider power plants using Thorium instead of Uranium (one of the advantages of Thorium fuel is that it’s more difficult to extract weapons-grade material from a Thorium reactor.
Building a safe nuclear power plant is a fairly complex undertaking, and even without the current artificial (legal and legislative) barriers to building new nuclear power plants, it is a multiyear process, so it’s not a solution for next year or the year after. Leaving aside the obvious advantage of zero emissions, the other advantage of nuclear power plants, shared with fossil fuel power plants, is that they are compact compared with the amount of power they generate and can run continuously. Solar and wind, on the other hand, take up large land areas, are only usable when the sun shines or the wind blows, may not be cost effective from a capital investment vs power output standpoint, and, in the case of wind power, may have undesirable environmental effects: bird kills and noise among them.
All this said, I don’t expect that a revival of nuclear power will reduce the cost of electricity. It will, however, provide an ongoing reliable source of power and will probably help to keep the cost of electricity more or less stable. Relying on natural gas (backed up by oil — I won’t mention coal) to generate electricity obviously requires a sufficient supply of natural gas, and we apparently have enough gas supply to provide for home heating or electric generation during the winter in New England …. but not both. Since most of us who heat with gas cannot afford to convert to electric heat (!), we would prefer to maintain the current gas supply for residential heating. Increasing the gas supply would be nice, if the necessary pipelines were routed along existing utility or highway corridors (but not through backyards and conservation lands). Increasing our dependence on nuclear power would eliminate or minimize the need for extra gas supply. Thus the Stoddarts’ idea makes a lot of sense. Sadly, I don’t expect that many in the environmentalist community will follow where they are leading.