by Nancy Spannaus
Sept. 7, 2019—Unfortunately, the illiteracy and irrational fear of nuclear power, with several key exceptions, was once again on display during the all-night CNN Climate Change debate on Sept. 4. Virtually all the candidates, pandering to an audience whose majority were anti-nuclear climate change advocates, either denounced nuclear energy as a solution to the situation, or paid tepid lip service to its unique potential. The stink of forty years of media and establishment-induced fear of nuclear power dating back to the hoked-up linkage between nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants, composed the unspoken bias of many of the candidates.
There is a very active lobby in favor of preserving and expanding the nuclear energy sector of the United States, including among avowed environmentalists. Groups such as Nuclear Matters are working hard to build popular and Congressional support for nuclear power, and to counter the myths about the alleged dangers of radiation and nuclear waste which are still polluting the mainstream media.
Two Democratic candidates in the debate stood out for their rejection of those myths.
Candidate Andrew Yang, to his credit, called for building thorium reactors, which the United States used to build but disbanded in the 1950s. Ironically, they were cast aside in favor of uranium-fueled reactors, whose byproducts could be used in making nuclear weapons.
However, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) distinguished himself for his unabashed
promotion of nuclear energy.
Booker is a co-sponsor of the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (S. 903) bill (see below), and an advocate for extensive deployment of nuclear power. Despite the preponderance of anti-nuclear people in the CNN audience, Booker gave an impassioned speech on the merits of nuclear power. He detailed his visits to nuclear R & D facilities and called for a big program to further develop this energy source and its next generation capabilities. He made a convincing argument for the linkage between the massive energy demands of a growing economy and the crucial role that nuclear energy can play fulfilling the need.
His optimistic passion in promoting the absolute need for a large nuclear program, coupled with his evoking a can-do spirit not seen in the nation really since John F. Kennedy’s space program, were a refreshing break from the stale air of anti-nuclear pessimism which pervaded the forum.
Why Nuclear Power is Critical
Not only is nuclear power the cleanest form of electricity production currently available, but its energy density and efficiency make it absolutely key to ramping up the productivity of the U.S. economy – not to mention alleviating poverty and malnutrition in Africa and other underdeveloped regions of the world.
As pointed out by all the leading American System economists and statesmen in our history, the key to advancing prosperity and progress is the increase in “artificial labor,” better known today as advances in mechanization, or the power of our machines. Such advances yield a greater result per unit of input, based on moving to higher and higher levels of technology. This idea was last put forward by President Kennedy, who expressed a strong commitment to expanding nuclear power both for electricity per se, and for desalination of sea water.
At present, the productivity of the U.S. economy is in the pits, both relative to nations such as China, and to the most productive periods of our history. We have a shortage of skilled labor, a miserably deficient transportation network, and a faltering water and communications system—to name just a few of the problems. To upgrade all of these infrastructure systems, we need electricity, lots of electricity. We’re not going to get it by building wind turbines and covering the landscape with solar panels. The safest, cleanest, most efficient and environmentally friendly way to produce it is through nuclear fission plants today, and new generations of fission plants moving into nuclear fusion power generation in the near future.
Fortunately, the Democratic Party roster of candidates do not represent the thinking of a large number of members of their party and the country. Over the past two years, progress has been made on the state level in saving some nuclear plants. One of the key methods has been by adding nuclear to the list of energy sources considered “renewable,” and thus eligible for state preferential treatment. Last week, California assembly Jordan Cunningham introduced a Constitutional amendment into the legislature which would classify nuclear power as renewable. Should this be voted up, an admitted super-long shot, it would permit the rescue of the state’s only remaining nuclear plant—and protect any other plants that might be built.
While the Trump Administration has failed to provide leadership to save and/or expand nuclear, there has been action in Congress. According to Nuclear Matters, on August 5, Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., introduced the Nuclear Energy Renewal Act, which would authorize $755 million per year from 2019 to 2029 to “enhance the economic viability of the current U.S. nuclear fleet.”
Three other nuclear bills have advanced in the past three legislative sessions. Two passed the Senate and one more, the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), advanced through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in July and now heads to the full Senate. The NELA bill calls for the Department of Energy (DOE) to “(1) establish a long-term nuclear power purchase agreement pilot program; (2) advance the research and development of domestic advanced, affordable, and clean nuclear energy; (3) develop a 10-year strategic plan for its Office of Nuclear Energy; (4) provide for a versatile, reactor-based fast neutron source; and (5) establish a program to make available high-assay, low-enriched uranium for use in commercial or noncommercial advanced nuclear reactors.”
The bill also mandates the DOE, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to establish a University Nuclear Leadership Program to provide financial assistance for scholarships, fellowships, and research and development projects at institutions of higher education.
This latter provision is absolutely critical, given the increasing age of skilled nuclear engineers, and the need for a new generation to replace them.
A companion bill to NELA (H.R. 3360) has also been introduced in the House of Representatives by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
Addressing the Key Issues
The campaign to preserve and expand nuclear power, however, has too often avoided addressing the real issue of nuclear power’s safety record, and the science behind its superiority to other forms of energy now available.
Fortunately, this issue is being taken up by environmental activist Michael Shellenberger, one of the many converts from anti-nuclear activism who now regularly propagandizes for nuclear. In April of this year Shellenberger, who heads an organization called Environmental Progress, addressed delegates at the XI International Forum Atomexpo 2019 in Sochi, Russia. An article in World Nuclear News reported on his speech. I urge you to read that full article.
Shellenberger’s argument for nuclear was addressed to environmentalists, but usefully went far beyond the usual arguments about alleged carbon pollution. He begins by emphasizing nuclear power’s energy density, which makes it enormously more efficient and friendly to humans and nature alike. And he puts up front the fact that nuclear’s efficiency makes it essential for eliminating poverty, which goes hand in hand with the lack of electricity, especially in countries throughout the Third World. Over one billion people in the world have no electricity, he reported, which contributes to their failing to have clean water, transportation, and modern medical care.
In addition, Shellenberger took on the wild distortions about the results of nuclear accidents such as Fukishima:
Fear of nuclear power because of the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, is baseless, Shellenberger said.
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation found there had been no deaths from radiation that escaped from Fukushima and yet 2000 people will have died from a panicked over-evacuation of the area, he said.
Energy production lies at the core of any program for economic rejuvenation of the United States economy, including creating skilled jobs, reducing income inequality, and rebuilding our collapsing infrastructure. Like the space program of the 1960s, an aggressive program for producing the next generation of nuclear plants, including nuclear fusion, can also be a spur to renewed optimism among our youth, many too many of whom are now engaged in a death spiral of despair, resulting in overdoses and suicide.