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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Nuclear Power Is no Longer Child of ’70s

By Chris Brockway

Environmentalists beware: Nuclear power may be making a comeback. For the first time in more than 20 years, permits will be requested for new nuclear power plants in this country. These new requests stand up in defiance of the blackout on new plants that has existed since the 3-Mile Island nuclear incident of 1979. Opponents, namely environmental groups bent on keeping us from glowing in the dark, are outraged. Perhaps they should be thanking their lucky stars that we have such a clean, reliable energy source, one that is poised and ready to make a comeback.

Truly, nuclear technology is tangled up with some of the most infamous events in history; names like 3-Mile Island and Chernobyl and Nagasaki are burned into our collective conscience with considerable weight. And many groups will stop at nothing to keep them there, preserved in our minds as warnings. Nuclear power is unsafe. Nuclear power is impractical. Its day has come, its time has passed. We need to pursue clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar: These are the wave of the future.

A new chorus has also rung out in our world now wrought with terrorism: Nuclear power means nuclear waste, waste that could be turned into a nuclear weapon by any savvy terrorist. Scary stuff.

These are all respectable concerns, but in the years since 3-Mile Island, nuclear power has been growing up, growing out of its infancy. Safety has improved. Technology has improved. The promise of clean air and no emissions is still there, and recycling of spent fuel has made even the biggest boon to nuclear power, namely the radioactive waste, into a manageable problem. Nuclear power is finally emerging from its childhood, and is ready to take on the world. Perhaps those in northern Utah, with its continually worsening air, should put their name on the list for the next nuclear permit.

Our collective nuclear phobia can be likened to a young child who is scared of the dark. Perhaps when you were little you heard noises in the dark, or were simply scared of what was behind the veil of blackness but you could not see. The problem was quickly remedied, as many of us learned, by turning on the lights, exposing the noises and the unknown. Indeed, things are most scary when we do not know their source and when we fail to look them in the eye, and that is why we must look closely at nuclear power before we miss a golden opportunity.

Nuclear power is very efficient. The fact that a new plant has not been built since 1973 in the United States, yet nuclear power still produces a solid fifth of our energy, is a testament to this effectiveness.

Nuclear power is remarkably clean, and it is only getting cleaner. It has never produced any greenhouse gasses, and you don’t breath smog from a nuclear plant, ever. Its primary pollutant, spent fuel, has been recyclable into new fuel for years. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been taken advantage of in the United States because of paranoid presidential administrations. In countries like France, which is crazy about nuclear power (deriving about 80 percent of their energy needs from it) they have been effectively and safely recycling spent fuel into new fuel for years. They not only need to mine less uranium because of this, but they have only a fraction of the disposal problem that we do. Fuel that has gone through recycling need only be contained for 300 years, rather than the usual 10,000. True cutting-edge environmentalism, here.

Nuclear power is ready now, unlike emerging energy technologies. Even though wind and solar power hold much promise, their full development is still in the future, and they have to overcome two hurdles which may forever handicap them: One, no matter how you slice it, they are dependent on the weather. If a consistent source is needed, and we must chose between coal or oil and nuclear, take nuclear any day. Two, they have a low energy density, which means acres and acres of windmills or solar panels are needed to supply the same energy that one concentrated nuclear plant can provide. All those acres, if we chose to run the entire country off them, would add up to quite an eyesore, as opposed to a few isolated, out-of-the-way nuclear plants.

Scientists, when it comes right down to it, are people too, and obviously let their egos intrude on weighty decisions. Nuclear engineers these days realize, because of our past difficulties, the dangers of this power and the frailty of the public’s confidence in it. This is why they work so much harder than their predecessors to ensure safety.

A new nuclear age is not without a few hurdles. The biggest one concerns not the science, which is sound, but the way nukes are regulated in this country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, is not only responsible for running the show and maintaining the plants, but is also in charge of touting the technology and advertising for its widespread use. Talk about a conflict of interests. That’s almost as bad as putting a Texas oilman in charge of all the oil in this country.

For the newest endeavors to work, this structure has to change, or we risk developing a lax regulatory structure where looks are more important than substance, much like what happened in the early days of nuclear power.

We stand at a crossroads here, with an opportunity to resurrect nuclear power or send it to its grave. We cannot let our paranoia spawn the latter, for if we do, we will slowly put ourselves into the grave with oil and coal power, as we wait for a questionable holy grail of wind and solar power. Nuclear power provides solutions now. It is time to embrace nuclear power as the old, misunderstood friend it always was.

Cris welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].

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