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'New Jolt For Nuclear Power'

May 17, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 20

I read Jeff Johnson's "New Jolt for Nuclear Power" and the article it referenced on reprocessing (C&EN, March 8, page 31; June 18, 2007, page 48). I believe the major problem facing the U.S. nuclear-power industry is its inability or unwillingness to generate capital because it has been subsidized by taxpayers for the past six decades. That habit hasn't been broken; President Obama has opened the public treasury again.

I have followed these discussions for more than four decades, and I am of the opinion that the spent fuels in the U.S. will be reprocessed and the fissile and fertile elements in them will be reused. It is only a matter of time. If the current generation tries to bury spent fuels in geologic repositories, a future generation will dig them out because they are a valuable energy resource.

Despite all the scary verbiage written about spent fuels, they are easily manageable if we decide to do so. Yes, it will require planning and management for a long time, but considering the energy content of these spent fuels, a fee imposed for keeping these materials safe for a century could be considered a gift to the future generation of Americans who are being saddled with enormous debt by the current generation.

The Purex process is a simple and elegant method for reprocessing that doesn't need too many fixes. Other methods developed with an eye to nonproliferation are also excellent, but they are more expensive and unnecessary. Many reading this letter can teach an undergraduate how to recover pure fissile from this so-called proliferation-proof product. Proliferation should be addressed separately in the international forum.

I hope that someday the U.S. will produce leaders who are smart enough to recognize the past 30 years' folly of spending enormous resources chasing geologic repositories. The big hole under Yucca Mountain can be used for temporary storage, if we wish. Permanent geologic disposal of spent fuel is a nonstarter.

K. K. S. Pillay
Los Alamos, N.M.

"New Jolt for Nuclear Power" is just about the most unbiased reporting I have seen on the issue of nuclear power. It would be great to have an extended piece on this topic and include its history and current status in other countries, specifically how they have been handling their nuclear waste.

Ujjvala Bagal
Savannah, Ga.

C&EN's article was intended, I assume, to inform readers of the rapidly improving status of nuclear power. Unfortunately, the article missed the mark by focusing on old issues.

The article begins by relating how the author once shot down a pronuclear speaker by asking him, "But what about the radioactive waste?" Then he states that the waste is as big a problem today as it was then. That is, and was, a considerable exaggeration.

Used nuclear fuel is stored quite safely now and will eventually be recycled to make electricity from the 95% of the energy that is still there. The radioactive waste from recycling will be made into glass and disposed of. Its heat and radioactivity will be much lower than that of the used fuel.

The nuclear power renaissance is alive and well for very good reasons. It has a decades-long record of being the safest and cleanest way to make baseload electricity. Solar and wind power and biofuels are being developed and will fill niche markets, but they do not supply needed baseload electricity. Nuclear power plants do not emit CO2 or anything that makes smog or acid rain. Other baseload fuels do not even come close, and many professional environmentalists now recognize that and support nuclear power.

Some still claim that nuclear power is unsafe. Worldwide, thousands of lives are taken or shortened annually by natural-gas fires and explosions, coal-mining accidents, and emissions from plants that run on gas or coal. Nobody in the Western world has been hurt or killed by a nuclear accident.

The lifetime cost of electricity from a nuclear plant is at least competitive with other options despite the higher capital costs. The article misleads a bit by calling loan guarantees "taxpayer based," because loan guarantees cost almost nothing unless the recipient defaults on the loan, which these companies do not intend to do. The companies around the globe that are building dozens of nuclear plants are not doing so to lose money.

The article quotes one antinuclear spokesperson saying loan guarantees are "pork-barrel politics on behalf of special interests." Producing cheaper, safer, cleaner electricity is not a special interest. It helps everyone and every business.

Mal McKibben
North Augusta, S.C.



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