The Future for Nuclear Power
NOT long ago there was glowing, almost unrestrained optimism for nuclear power. The atom was viewed as a source of limitless, inexpensive energy. But the optimism has cooled somewhat. As noted by a speaker at the fourth international atoms-for-peace conference in September 1971, there are “unforeseen and unpleasant side effects.”
To help protect the American public from adverse “side effects,” the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law January 1, 1970. It requires that a government agency prepare and distribute “an environmental impact statement” that gives the probable detrimental effects a proposed new project may have. It was charged, however, that the Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.) failed to implement environmental safeguards in projects it oversees, thus making a “mockery” of the Environmental Policy Act.
In a milestone decision, a United States federal court on July 23, 1971, upheld the charge. Therefore the A.E.C. was required to review permits and licenses already granted to dozens of nuclear power plants under construction, including some that had recently begun operating. In December 1971, Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred E. Johnson noted that it might take up to a year to review pending permits.
Delays and Their Effects
This has resulted in considerable delays in providing electricity from nuclear facilities. As of April 1971, it had been a full year since the A.E.C. had issued a full operating permit to any nuclear power plant in the United States! Some utilities were even notified to cease construction on portions of their nuclear plants until a complete investigation could be made. These delays have served to increase the power crisis, for new generating plants are badly needed.
On March 16, 1972, the chairman of the A.E.C. urged Congress to modify the laws temporarily to permit idle nuclear plants to go into operation. Does this mean that public health and safety could be sacrificed in the haste to keep up with demands for electricity? Can citizens be assured that unsafe nuclear reactors will not be pressed into service? Some persons are apprehensive about the matter. Yet there is something else that is of even greater concern.
Some persons ask: What if a few years from now the radiation emitted from nuclear reactors is indeed found to be damaging to humans, even as some prominent scientists have been saying that it is? By then a large portion of electrical power may be generated by nuclear fission. What would mankind do? Shut down nuclear facilities and bring to a halt the modern way of life based on electrical power? Or would humans accept the resulting radiation-induced cancer plague as a price to pay for electricity? It is indeed an unpleasant prospect to consider, as a writer in the New York Times commented in January 1972:
“The United States, Europe, the Soviet Union and Japan have a habit. They are addicted to heavy energy use, great gulps and injections of fossil fuel. As fossil-fuel reserves go down, they will take dangerous gambles with the future health of the biosphere (through nuclear power) to keep up their habit.”
There is, however, quite a different kind of cloud that hangs over the future of nuclear power.
Fuel Running Out
The present-day nuclear reactor is very inefficient in the use of uranium. It utilizes only about 1 percent of its energy content in producing power. As a result, U-235, the uranium isotope used in nuclear fuel, is rapidly being depleted. Science Digest of last February observed: “Ordinary nuclear plants are consuming available uranium so quickly that by 1980 we’ll probably be scraping bottom.”
The Atomic Energy Commission’s Robert Nininger recently expressed this ominous outlook: “Things could come to a slow grinding halt unless we could get uranium overseas. Mathematically, we could be taken out to about 1982.” Other estimates indicate the supply could last a little longer.
What does this mean? Surely all these nuclear plants are not being planned and built knowing that the whole nuclear fission system of power generation could soon grind to a halt. How is this problem supposed to be solved? Will it result in lessening or increasing possible hazards to man?
A Different Kind of Reactor
The fast-breeder reactor is being looked to as the solution of the uranium shortage. Peter Mummery, head of a reactor development center in northern Scotland, said of breeder reactors: “We are putting all our money on them.” The United States has taken a similar position.
In his June 4, 1971, message to Congress on the energy crisis President Nixon asserted: “Our best hope today for meeting the Nation’s growing demand for economical, clean energy lies with the fast-breeder reactor.” The president asked Congress to pledge $2,000,000,000 in federal funds over the next ten years to develop a commercial model. But how is the breeder reactor intended to solve the fuel problem?
It is by producing more fuel than it uses. The breeder reactor can actually do this, thus the name breeder. This may at first sound impossible, but how it can be accomplished is appreciated when one realizes that new elements are formed during the fissioning process.
In the conventional reactor’s operation, U-235 atoms split and form smaller radioactive elements, as well as releasing neutrons. But U-238 atoms, instead of splitting, capture a neutron and are transformed into fissionable plutonium, an element not ordinarily found on earth. In a conventional reactor a relatively small number of U-238 atoms capture neutrons, thus producing only a little plutonium. But in the breeder reactor more U-238 is transformed into plutonium than the amount of fissionable fuel consumed! How is this made possible?
It is due to the speed with which the neutrons travel. In the breeder reactor, rather than having a material of some sort to slow down the neutrons, they are left to travel rapidly. (That is why it is called a fast-breeder.) Thus when the neutrons hit and split either U-235 or plutonium, they dislodge from the fissioning atoms more neutrons than occurs in a conventional reactor. This makes more neutrons available to be captured by the plentiful U-238, and hence there is a net increase in the production of plutonium, which is the fuel used in breeder reactors.
Because of thus breeding fuel, the chairman of the A.E.C., James R. Schlesinger, said: “The breeder will be able to provide electrical energy for tens of thousands of years.” But the question has been raised: Can commercial breeder reactors be developed before uranium supplies run out?
Possible Production Time Schedule
A number of test versions have already been built. Also, the Soviets and British have made significant progress in building commercial-size breeder reactors. But it was not until January 1972 that the United States announced plans to build their first large fast-breeder reactor. Construction may begin sometime in 1973, and completion can be expected, observed A. Eugene Schubert, vice-president of the General Electric Company, “about 1980.” Therefore he said:
“Utilities obviously will not buy any of these new plants until they see it proven, so it would probably be 1982 before any substantial orders are taken and, thus, 1990 before any real quantities of electricity come from breeders.”
Some believe it may be a close race to get breeder reactors into operation before uranium supplies run out. Unless breeder reactors are available by the late 1980’s, observed one writer, the first generation of nuclear power stations may be the last. So there is urgency to rush ahead with the breeder program. Yet there is also vigorous opposition to this. Why?
Question of Health and Safety
It is because of the potential dangers associated with the breeder reactor. Critics say that there is no assurance it will function safely. For instance, there is danger with the coolant. Because of the higher temperatures at which the breeder reactor operates, liquid sodium rather than water is used to cool the reactor and transfer its heat for producing steam to generate electricity. But since liquid sodium is very corrosive and will explode upon contact with water or air, the concern for safety is understandable.
But safely handling tremendous volumes of circulating sodium is only one engineering problem. Just a few years ago it was discovered that metal swells when exposed to prolonged heavy neutron dosages. Since the core of the reactor must be built with Swiss-watch precision, this presents a formidable problem.
When one considers the fuel used, the seriousness of any malfunction can be appreciated—the plutonium fuel being one of the most dangerous substances in existence. And to think that each reactor will contain thousands of pounds of it! Dr. Edward Teller observed in Nuclear News, August 21, 1967:
“In order that it should work economically in a sufficiently big power-producing unit, it probably needs quite a bit more than one ton of plutonium. I do not like the hazard involved. I suggested that nuclear reactors are a blessing because they are clean. They are clean as long as they function as planned, but if they malfunction in a massive manner, which can happen in principle, they can release enough fission products to kill a tremendous number of people.”
In keeping with the requirements of recent legislation, a statement as to potential risks of the breeder-reactor program has been distributed. But prominent scientists find shortcomings in the statement. The New York Times, April 26, 1972, reported beneath the headline “Scientists Oppose Breeder Reactor”:
“Thirty-one scientists and other professional persons urged Congress today to deny the Nixon Administration’s request for funds to start building a $500-million demonstration model of a nuclear breeder reactor to generate electricity.
“‘Too many serious questions exist about the safety and environmental impact of such a project to make a commitment at this point to the commercial development of this technology,’ the scientists said in a statement.”
However, the commitment to nuclear power is so great that the chances that there will be a change in policy are considered very slim. Admittedly nuclear reactors present risks—extremely dangerous ones—some well-informed persons believe. However, government and industry leaders are willing to take these risks.
What does the future hold for nuclear power? It is far from being entirely bright and optimistic.