The Nuclear Option

So you’re against nuclear power. Do you know why?

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A decade and a year after Enrico Fermi demonstrated the first atomic fission chain reaction, President Dwight D. Eisenhower went before the United Nations General Assembly to avert an apocalypse. Other nations now had in their hands the weapon with which the United States had pulverized two Japanese cities; altruistic scientists and eager investors both had pressured the president to share the technology for peaceful uses. And so Eisenhower had little choice on that December day in 1953 but to announce a new purpose for the force inside the atom: Properly monitored and generously financed, he declared in his “Atoms for Peace” address, fission could be harnessed “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”

You could have been forgiven for thinking the president and his advisers had just hatched the notion that month, so full of poetic wonder and portent was that speech. In fact, not only were the Soviets about to power up a five-megawatt reactor, but the Westinghouse Electric Corporation was well on its way to building the country’s first commercial atomic power plant. Within five years, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station would begin sending its 60 megawatts of electricity to the city of Pittsburgh.

That was probably about the best atomic power ever looked. For it wasn’t long before the electricity touted as “too cheap to meter” proved too pricey for profit: The power that came out of Shippingport cost 10 times the going rate. Though in the coming years many more reactors would be hitched to the nation’s grid, Eisenhower’s gallant dreams were undone by rising construction costs, high maintenance bills, and risk. The last application for a new nuclear plant was withdrawn in 1978. By the time Three Mile Island nearly melted down in 1979, the United States was through with nuclear-generated electricity.

Until now.

When President George W. Bush celebrated the Energy Policy Act of 2005 at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland, he may as well have been delivering the 21st-century update of Eisenhower’s 1953 manifesto, minus the poetry, and plus some dopey jokes. (“Pass the Mayo,” he chirped to Constellation Energy CEO Mayo Shattuck.) This time, however, the marketing slogan was not about peace, but the very future of the planet. “Without these nuclear plants,” Bush said, “America would release nearly 700 million metric tons more carbon dioxide into the air each year.” Half a century after Shippingport powered up, the U.S. government has once again entwined its long fingers under the heel of the big industry that couldn’t.

In his day, Eisenhower shared his vision with a number of vocal pacifists: Redirecting atomic power to electricity, they believed, would at least keep the military occupied with something other than blowing up cities. And Bush shares his vision with some prominent environmentalists: Stewart Brand, for instance, who founded the Whole Earth Catalog and Fred Krupp, the director of the Environmental Defense Fund, who believes that “the challenge of global warming is so urgent we can’t afford to take anything off the table.”

As far back as 1978, Tom Alexander—an award-winning science writer with a deep knowledge of economics and ecology—urged utilities in the pages of Fortune to resuscitate the already-flagging nuclear industry lest a ramp-up in coal-fired electricity “trigger irreversible changes in the world’s climate.” The ramp-up happened on schedule; the changes in climate too. Which now makes it very hard to ignore the fact that whatever else nuclear power does to the environment, however many fish it kills or however much waste it leaves in our great-great-great-great-grandchildren’s hands, it emits neither soot nor smoke nor mercury, and far less carbon dioxide than the coal that keeps most of our lights on.

Industry has been quick to take advantage of the shifting political climate: Last year, UniStar submitted an application for a new nuclear reactor to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the first to cross the agency’s desk since Jimmy Carter was president. Four more followed, and 14 separate companies have notified the agency that they will file applications in the next year. It’s hard to imagine any of the current presidential candidates slashing nuclear subsidies once in office. (Senator Barack Obama, for one, represents a state with 11 of the nation’s 104 civilian reactors, and his donors include employees of nuclear giant Exelon.)

But can nuclear power really rescue our warming planet? And if you answered quickly, answer this too: Are you for or against because you know the science, or because someone said you should be?

When we talk about nuclear power these days, we talk about environmentalists for nukes, and about people posing as environmentalists for nukes. We talk about Dick Cheney’s energy bill defibrillating a faltering industry with $12 billion worth of incentives and tax breaks. We talk about who is for and who is against, and whether we can trust them.

But no one talks about fission. No one talks about the letter Albert Einstein wrote to FDR in 1939, advising the president that “it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium” to produce enormous amounts of power. No one mentions that breathtaking moment on December 2, 1942, when Fermi, on a squash court at the University of Chicago, had an assistant slowly pull a control rod from a pile of uranium and graphite, sustaining a controlled chain reaction for 28 minutes and thus securing atomic power’s industrial future.

For the last four years, I have tried to shut out the chatter—the goofy Nuclear Energy Institute ad (girl on a scooter says, “Our generation is demanding lots of electricity…and clean air.”), and the warnings of No Nukes godmother Helen Caldicott, who, rightly or wrongly, cannot think of splitting atoms without thinking of weapons. I’ve tried to focus instead on the awesome force that binds the nucleus and whether it can ever be an appropriate source of civilian energy.

The idea of nuclear power arose more than half a century ago out of the most noble impulses of humanity’s brightest minds, scientists who hoped that the destructive force they’d harnessed, the most concentrated source of energy on earth, could also be applied for good. But atomic electricity strayed so far from its promise—corrupted by government’s collusion with industry, mismanagement for the sake of profit, and ordinary bureaucratic incompetence—that we seem flummoxed at the thought of ever reclaiming it.

To consider a technology as terrifying as nuclear power requires more than slogans. It requires looking beyond the marketing and activism, into the physics and its consequences. It means thinking about rocks. And waste. And fission.



Hot Rocks, Warm Water



Like so many sources of energy, nuclear power begins with a rock—a brownish chunk of hard dirt, flecked with glittery particles. You can hold uranium in your hand without much trouble: As it decays into other elements—thorium, radium, and eventually lead—it throws off radioactive particles, but most of them can’t penetrate your skin. Nor can they sustain a controlled chain reaction in most of the world’s nuclear reactors. For that, you need a certain neutron-rich uranium isotope, U-235, which makes up only a tiny portion of raw uranium ore.

Natural uranium comes out of the ground in Canada, Australia, Niger, and several other countries. Uranium is finite, and it’s not easy to find—as a consequence of the impending nuclear revival, mines that were once declared unprofitable may open once again, including some in the western United States. This worries people who remember the last uranium boom in the Southwest: From the 1940s through the 1980s, more than 15,000 men, many of them Navajo, worked the mines, often without protection. Many eventually came down with cancer or respiratory diseases. Few were compensated. When the mines closed, piles of uranium tailings were left mouldering along the Colorado River, leaching at least 15,000 gallons of toxic chemicals a day into water destined for taps in Arizona and California.

To be useful as nuclear fuel, uranium ore has to be refined into uranium oxide (the yellowcake of Niger fame) and then enriched—turned into pellets of 4 percent U-235. The sole U.S. plant that enriches uranium for civilian power reactors, located in Paducah, Kentucky, accomplishes this via an energy-hogging process that consumes 15 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. Even so, carbon emissions for the entire nuclear fuel cycle come to no more than 55 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour—roughly even with solar. By 2010, when the U.S. Enrichment Corporation is slated to switch to the more efficient method used in Europe, that number should come down closer to 12 grams per kilowatt-hour—on par with wind.

Nuclear power does have other environmental consequences, drawbacks that have nothing to do with carbon: Aside from radiation (more on that later), a particularly delicate one involves cooling water. “Light water” reactors, used at the majority of the world’s nuclear plants (so named because they employ ordinary H2O, as opposed to water made with a heavy hydrogen isotope), use water both to moderate the chain reaction and produce steam to spin turbines—2 billion gallons per day on average. Most of it returns to the adjoining river, lake, or ocean up to 25 degrees warmer, an ecological impact that could significantly interfere with nuclear power’s chances as a climate-change solution. Already, wherever a light-water reactor sits near a sensitive body of water, its intake pipes kill fish and its outflow distorts ecosystems to favor warm-water species.



The Cancer Conundrum



Will a nuclear reactor operating under normal conditions give you cancer? It’s a question that, surprisingly, still hasn’t been conclusively answered. A 1995 Greenpeace study found an increase in breast-cancer mortality among women living near various U.S. and Canadian reactors in the Great Lakes region. Yet peer-reviewed studies by the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation as well as the National Cancer Institute show no significant increase in cancer among people living near reactors. An initiative called the Tooth Fairy Project is currently trying to prove that concentrations of the radioactive isotope strontium-90 are higher in baby teeth from children who grow up near nuclear plants. But those tests are not complete, and no one else has turned up persuasive evidence of such a link.

“Without a baseline study, we don’t have any credibility” on the cancer issue, longtime Southern California anti-nuclear activist Rochelle Becker once told me. “There are so many things wrong with the nuclear industry that are confirmable that we try to stay away from that.”

We do know that nuclear plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive gases, and that those releases expose nearby residents to a small dose of radiation—one that the Health Physics Society, which governs radiation measurements, says will probably not increase their risk of getting cancer. We know that elevated levels of radioactive tritium—which gets into water and is easily ingested—have been found downstream from nuclear facilities, and we know that the scientific consensus holds that no amount of radiation is good for you.

But we also know this: 24,000 Americans per year die of diseases related to emissions from coal-fired power plants, which release sulfur dioxide, smog-forming nitrogen, toxic soot, and mercury—not to mention 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually.

It’s a devil of a dilemma: One source of always-on “base load” power kills people every day. Another kills people only if something goes terribly wrong. And it could.



Accidents Happen



Early in the morning of March 28, 1979, a combination of malfunctioning equipment and inadequately trained workers led to a loss-of-coolant episode at Three Mile Island Unit 2 near Middletown, Pennsylvania. Had workers not finally arrested the disaster 10 hours after it started, the fuel inside the reactor could have melted completely—the disaster scenario alluded to in the movie The China Syndrome, which had arrived in theaters just a few weeks before. The partial meltdown and subsequent radiation leak was the worst nuclear accident ever on U.S. soil; in its wake, public support for the technology dropped from 70 to 50 percent, where it remains today. Industry proponents claim that no one died as a direct result of the accident, and in 1990, a Columbia University study found no elevated radiation-related cancer risk in the population near the plant. A later study, though, found a tenfold increase in cancer among the people who lived in the path of the radioactive plume.

Because of Three Mile Island, the night crew performing an ill-advised test at the Chernobyl plant on April 26, 1986, might have been prepared for a loss-of-coolant episode. But they didn’t know enough about the plant they were tinkering with to have an idea what to do when things went grievously wrong. The reactor exploded, and the fire spewed a massive cloud of radiation across Europe.

There are no reactors as fire-prone as Chernobyl in the United States, and reactor safeguards have been upgraded dramatically since Three Mile Island. Emer­gency core-cooling systems kick in if other systems fail; operators have been trained to respond promptly when something goes awry. But just because what has already happened may not happen again doesn’t mean we should relax: Human error has infinite permutations, and near misses in the last decade have shown just how vulnerable reactors remain.

In March 2002, during a scheduled refueling outage at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station in Ohio, workers discovered that boric acid deposits had gnawed a “pineapple-sized” hole into the six-inch-thick steel cap bolted to the top of the reactor. Had the corrosion gone just a third of an inch deeper, radioactive steam would have flooded the containment dome, and Davis-Besse might have been the next Three Mile Island.

As frightening as the near-accident was the way Davis-Besse owners FirstEnergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded: by soft-pedaling procedural flaws and scapegoating plant workers, in particular Andrew Siemaszko, a systems engineer who they claimed had failed to report the corrosion. The NRC has since barred Siemaszko from working in the nuclear industry, and in 2006 he was indicted on five counts of lying to the government and falsifying records. But documents show that Siemaszko repeatedly told his employers the reactor head needed a thorough cleaning. FirstEnergy didn’t complete that job because it was taking too long (keeping the reactor idle was costing the company $1 million a day)—and the NRC delayed a scheduled inspection of the reactor at FirstEnergy’s request.



Watchdog or Lapdog?



The Davis-Besse incident puts into sharp relief a history of regulatory neglect that goes back for decades. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has counted 47 incidents since 1979 in which the NRC failed to adequately address issues at nuclear power plants—until the troubles got so bad the plants had to be shut down for repairs. In some cases, “the NRC allowed reactors with known safety problems to continue operating for months, sometimes years, without requiring owners to fix the problems.”

There’s evidence, too, that the commission has tolerated serious lapses in security, even after 9/11. In March 2007, an anonymous whistleblower wrote a letter to the NRC claiming that guards at Exelon’s Peach Bottom plant in Pennsylvania were “coming into work exhausted after working excessive overtime” and thus “sleeping on duty at an alarming rate.” The NRC ignored the letter until a guard videotaped the naps in progress and WCBS in New York aired the tape. The Project on Government Oversight claims a skilled infiltrator would need just 45 seconds to penetrate the area where Peach Bottom stores its spent fuel.

The corporation that provides those sleepy guards, Wackenhut, has also been accused of cheating on security exercises: One DOE inspector general’s report found that in 2003 guards had been tipped off in advance about security drills at a government nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The same year, Wackenhut was fired from Entergy’s Indian Point plant in New York after guards there admitted they had been improperly armed and trained.

Critics often point out that the NRC is funded by industry fees; despite his cautious support of nuclear power, Obama declared it “a moribund agency…captive of the industries that it regulates.” (NRC spokesman Scott Burnell insists that because those fees come to the NRC through the U.S. Treasury, there’s no conflict of interest. “It’s not a case where the industry is handing us a check,” he says.)

Dave Lochbaum, UCS’s nuclear-safety expert, believes the problem at the NRC is a lack of money—and congressional attention. “There have been more hearings on lunches in the White House,” he notes, “than on whether the NRC’s doing a good job.”



The French Connection



Just as there are arguments against public investment in nuclear power, there are arguments for it—and one huge living example. France shifted from oil-burning electric plants to nuclear during the oil crisis of the early ’70s, and over the past 20 years it has invested $160 billion in nuclear programs, making the country the largest exporter of nuclear electricity in the European Union. Sixteen percent of the world’s nuclear power is generated in France. And where once the French were buying nuclear technology from the United States, now it’s the other way round: 6 of the 20 applications expected to be submitted to the NRC before 2010 are for the U.S. Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR) designed by the French conglomerate Areva.

Instead of just two coolant loops like the traditional “Generation II” reactor, the EPR has four. If one leaks, another kicks in: No more Three Mile Islands. “The EPR has more defensive depth than reactors created for the U.S. market,” acknowledges Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the UCS.

His cautious approval of the EPR is significant: Two years ago, Dan Hirsch of the anti-nuclear group Committee to Bridge the Gap warned me not to make too much of the alleged environmentalist enthusiasm for nuclear power. “All of the people supporting it now supported it before,” he argued. “It’s not news. But when the Union of Concerned Scientists comes out in favor of nuclear, now that will be news.”

That hasn’t happened exactly: The UCS remains ambivalent about nuclear power, and its position papers reflect deep worries about the technology. But as far as the UCS is capable of liking a reactor, it likes the EPR.

Lyman stresses that the EPR’s improved safety doesn’t mean that Areva “is a warm and fuzzy company.” It only means it designed the EPR to meet the safety standards of the European Union, which happen to be better than ours. “The NRC’s whole presumption is that the current reactors are safe enough,” Lyman explains. “The NRC is afraid that if it makes too much fuss about how the new ones are safer than old ones, it will mean that the old ones aren’t safe enough.

“An opportunity is being squandered,” he adds. “If this renaissance is going to happen, you’re going to build a new fleet of reactors to last 60, 80, 100 years. Why not lock in a safer reactor design?”



The $50 Billion Question



In 1960, the price of a brand-new light-water reactor hovered around $68 million, just under what it cost to build a new coal plant at the time. (Actual costs were often higher, but eager manufacturers offered “turnkey” plants at a fixed price, absorbing any overruns.) Having recouped their start-up costs, these older reactors now produce electricity—a fifth of the country’s power, all in all—at prices that easily compete with coal. But a new plant will have a harder time breaking even: An Areva reactor may start at $3 or $4 billion, already twice as much as a coal plant, but actual construction costs and interest will probably boost total plant cost to $9 billion.

Which is why not a single one will get built without help from the government, says Craig Nesbit of Chicago-based Exelon. “These are huge capital projects,” he says. “The largest capital projects on a private scale you can build. We wouldn’t be building them without loan guarantees.” Nuclear lobbyists have been asking for $50 billion in such guarantees, which, they point out, are given to other industries, including wind and solar: “There’s nothing exotic about it,” Nesbit says. Companies also want “production tax credits” for the actual power they generate, on the order of a penny or two per kilowatt, also akin to wind energy. So far, Congress has pledged up to $6 billion worth of production tax credits for new nuclear plants. But in 2007, it capped loan guarantees for plant construction at $18.5 billion—scarcely enough to fund a couple of reactors. “We considered that a win for our side,” says anti-nuclear activist Becker.

The industry does get another massive taxpayer-funded benefit, however: Since 1957, plant operators have been protected by the Price-Anderson Act, which limits their liability in a catastrophic accident. The 2005 energy bill updated the act, which required reactor operators to carry insurance policies worth $300 million and contribute $95 million to an accident compensation fund. The rest is covered by taxpayers—not a bad deal, considering that it cost $1 billion to clean up after Three Mile Island.

The debate over whether nuclear power deserves this kind of public investment is second only to the debate over whether reactors can ever be safe. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, long a foe of nuclear power, argues that “about three-quarters of all electricity we use in North America can be saved cheaper than just running a coal or nuclear plant, even if the capital costs of the plant were zero.” Lovins has argued for 30 years that redirecting nuclear investments toward energy efficiency, solar, wind, or tiny gas turbines that could be located in every neighborhood would yield carbon-free power much faster, without the federally mandated insurance policy. Nuclear power, he’s famously said, “is like cutting butter with a chainsaw.”

But wind and solar have still not fully conquered their intermittency issues: Wind power works only when the wind blows; solar panels are no good at night. “Distributed micropower” could make progress fast; efficiency would do even better; and we should look forward to the day when they put the mammoth, centralized energy providers that feed our national grid out of business. But given the current economic structure of our energy market, can any of those things quickly replace coal? And how fast? Barring a president who can infuse us with the political will to roll out a Jimmy Carter-style conservation plan, electricity demand will continue to rise. We may be stuck with our devil of a dilemma.



Wasted Promise



The Atomic Age has left behind many kinds of radioactive garbage, from the rags that mopped up hot spills to the concrete from decommissioned reactors to the liquid residue of plutonium warheads. Some is low-level waste, already tucked away in various locations, from Hanford in southwestern Washington state to Barnwellin South Carolina. The waste fuel from nuclear reactors is high-level stuff that will remain dangerously radioactive for millions of years. In volume it’s not that much: All the detritus from a half-century of civilian nuclear power “can fit on a football field piled six meters high,” says Harold McFarlane, deputy associate laboratory director for nuclear programs at Idaho National Laboratory. “It grows at about three yards a year [in length].” But we still have no place to put it.

Since Congress in 1987 picked Yucca Mountain as the repository for the country’s high-level waste, the state of Nevada has sued several times to block it, mostly on the grounds that the Department of Energy relied on bad science to select the spot: Among other things, an earthquake fault runs under it, and water percolates through the porous volcanic tuff. (When I visited after a wet desert winter in 2005, Yucca—which the feds have always characterized as arid—was positively green.)

The repository’s most recent opening date was set for 2017. But that date “is clearly out the window,” says Ward Sproat, who directs the Yucca project for the DOE. “Based on what I’m seeing right now it’s a two- to three-year slip from that.” Others predict that the $11 billion facility won’t open at all. Still, the DOE has announced that it will file its long-awaited license application in June. For now, nearly all the nation’s spent-fuel assemblies sit at individual reactor sites in water-filled basins about the size of swimming pools but 30 feet deeper, and reinforced with concrete. Most of the pools are close to full and, according to a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences, vulnerable to terrorist attack.

If Yucca Mountain ever does open, another perplexing problem emerges: transporting waste from the 200-plus reactors around the country. Trains can come off their rails; sabotage and hijackings happen. According to a map the state of Nevada circulates, only the Dakotas, Montana, and Rhode Island lie outside planned nuclear waste transportation routes.

DOE spokesman Allen Benson, who gives tours of Yucca Mountain to journalists, contends that “we’ve been shipping nuclear waste around the country since the beginning of the atomic age.” Still, the DOE intends to build a dedicated rail line 300 miles into the Nevada desert and instruct residents along its route in how to respond to emergencies. Everyone along the route will know where those trains are going. And what they carry.



Dirty Recycling



So why don’t we do like they do in France, where they recycle the fuel from their own 59 reactors, along with some from other countries, into neat little piles of useful radionuclides? By dissolving nuclear waste in acids and separating the isotopes, they can reduce 20 years’ waste from a family of four’s electricity use to a glasslike nugget the size of a cigarette lighter.

France’s eager embrace of nuclear technology has yielded some spectacular benefits. The country, which relies on nuclear for nearly 80 percent of its electricity, emits only two tons of carbon dioxide per person per year, less than half the U.S. load. But its reprocessing operations, as with Britain’s notoriously leaky site at Sellafield, have racked up such a roster of problems that in the United States they’d be shut down as gross violators of the Clean Water Act. Every year Areva, the French conglomerate that handles reprocessing, dumps so much radioactive liquid into the Channel that, says Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “there are certain beaches where the effluent pipe is where you can get a suntan at night.

“I’m not going to say the French are ‘no blood, no foul,'” Lochbaum told me, “but they’re not quite as concerned about effluents as we are. They tend to believe more in ‘the solution to pollution is dilution.'” They are, however, in violation of European Union pollution regulations—largely because the waste contains the dangerous isotope technetium, which so far no one has found a way to remove.

“Ten European governments have come together to get them to stop, saying, ‘You’re polluting all the way to the Arctic,'” says Arjun Makhijani of the watchdog group Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. “But they haven’t stopped. They haven’t stopped because there’s no way for them to stop.”

The dumping has grim consequences. In 1997, researchers surveying children and young people who lived near the Normandy Coast town of La Hague where reprocessing takes place found a correlation between beach visits and leukemia risk. Yet Areva continues to argue that its operations have “zero impact” on the environment.

In addition to pollution problems, the reprocessing of nuclear waste isolates plutonium. Currently, France has 80 tons of it socked away, enough to make 10,000 nuclear bombs. “They store it in what looks like 11,000 sugar cans,” says Makhijani. “It’s a huge security issue.” In 1974, India made its first nuclear bomb with plutonium skimmed off reprocessed nuclear waste. For that reason, President Gerald Ford placed a temporary hold on the technology in 1976, a hold President Carter turned into a ban.

Nevertheless, the 2009 federal budget request includes $301.5 million for research into reprocessing technologies. For a nuclear future to flower, industry executives want assurances that the waste problem won’t continue to haunt them. “Unless we see a clear path,” says Exelon’s Craig Nesbit, “we don’t believe that we or anyone else should be building new nuclear plants. We don’t think it’s right to saddle a community with more high-level spent fuel than already exists.”



Breeding Reactors



In his 1974 book The Curve of Binding Energy, John McPhee speculated that by the end of the 20th century, reactors using nuclear fusion—the kind of reaction that powers the sun—would be in operation, “and the energy crisis will cease to be a crisis for many millions of years.”

Okay, so that hasn’t happened. But what if a nuclear reactor could be invented that was safe, sustainable, and clean, even using plain old fission? What if it could reuse spent fuel until it was no longer dangerous, curtailing the pesky problems of waste, mining, and a finite uranium supply all at once?

These are the questions du jour of research facilities around the world, places like Idaho National Laboratory, which sprawls over 890 square miles of desert land bounded by some of America’s most prized national parks. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was a bustling facility, drawing the best in young talent from the world’s science academies. Now, says nuclear programs director Harold McFarlane, the lab—which has expanded into other fields, such as biotechnology and alternative energy—is back full bore in the nuclear business, bolstered by federal programs to encourage the development of “Generation IV” reactors. (The 2009 budget request includes $70 million for such programs.)

One reactor in the offing, the Next Generation Nuclear Plant, can be cooled with helium instead of water and might be capable of producing industrial hydrogen to power emission-free cars and other power plants. Another, the Advanced Fast Reactor, can burn up the radioactive elements that remain behind in a light-water reactor. Other countries—India, China, South Africa—are working on their own prototypes. “There’s also a great deal of interest in designing smaller reactors for developing nations,” McFarlane says, “anywhere from 20 megawatts to 600 megawatts, to provide distributed power to outlying areas.”

McFarlane has noticed that nuclear engineering has become a hot major in college again. “We’re seeing a fantastic increase in undergraduate enrollment,” he says. “A lot of universities are reinstating nuclear engineering programs they dropped back in the ’80s and ’90s.”



The Ultimatum



When Tom Alexander recommended nuclear power as a hedge against climate catastrophe 30 years ago, he did so not because it was perfect, but because he thought that with better information its imperfections could be addressed. He was no industry shill; he also blasted the Reagan administration for blowing $10 billion on a badly conceived uranium-enrichment plant, and the government in general, whose “inability to untangle its licensing, fuel, and waste-storage policies has all but destroyed the electrical companies’ brief infatuation with nuclear power.” As with the early proponents of nuclear power (who in the 1940s staged sit-ins and hunger strikes to call for the “peaceful uses of atomic fission”), Alexander believed that there was a way to apply atomic technology against poverty, environmental collapse, and certain doom.

Alexander died in 2005 at the age of 74, never writing one last story to say he told us so: We shouldn’t have built so many coal plants. And just maybe, instead of destroying that “brief infatuation with nuclear power,” we should have fixed the nuclear industry instead.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of global mayhem should we fail to cut our carbon emissions in half by midcentury. For nuclear power to make a significant dent in the U.S. carbon footprint, the Colorado-based Keystone Center for Science and Public Policy reported last year, we would have to build five new 1,000 megawatt reactors every year for the next half-century.

“The world we have made as a result of a level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them,” said Albert Einstein. In other words, we have driven ourselves into a technological quagmire. There is no easy route back, but there may be many paths forward. Nuclear power is expensive, flawed, dangerous, and finicky; it depends on humans to run properly, and when those humans err, the consequences are worse than the worst accident involving any other energy source. If there isn’t a way to do it right, let’s abandon it—but only because we’re secure in the belief that we can replace coal-fired electricity with energy from the wind, the sun, and the earth. When rising seas flood our coasts, the idea of producing electricity from the most terrifying force ever harnessed may not seem so frightening—or expensive—after all.



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Our team has been on fire lately—publishing sweeping, one-of-a-kind investigations, ambitious, groundbreaking projects, and even releasing “the holy shit documentary of the year.” And that’s on top of protecting free and fair elections and standing up to bullies and BS when others in the media don’t.

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