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Fear has limited America's use of nuclear power

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Posted: Friday, October 24, 2003 10:00 pm

The most common question asked of me at parties, when I used to work at nuclear power plants, was "Do you glow in the dark?"

I would normally respond with some humorous remark.

The fear of the nuclear plants exploding like an atomic bomb or irradiating people is very real in the mind of an ordinary citizen.Taj Khan

This fear, which was cultivated by the so-called environmentalists and imagery of the media, was the cause of shutting down Rancho Seco Nuclear Plant located about 20 miles from Lodi and some other power producing projects in the U.S.

Pressure came from the media, people and environmentalist movements. Long and complicated lawsuits practically stopped every project that was on the drawing board. The utilities took their lumps and suffered major losses. As a result, decision makers took steps to move away from building any nuclear plants in the last two decades and carbon-based fuel became the fuel of choice in the power industry. And the green-house gases production soared; which, the scientists say, is causing global warming.

The statistics prove that the fears propagated by anti-nuke crowd were unfounded.

Our current modus operandi of generating power kills more people and produces more green-house gases and pollution than if we were using nuclear fuel for generating power.

Here are some statistics: In 2000, the world carbon based power projects produced over 28 billion tons of gaseous waste (sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide) and over 350 million tons of solid waste.

Compared to this nuclear power has produced only 0.04 million tons of solid waste and not a single ton of gaseous waste.

Data from the Paul-Scherrer Institute in Switzerland for 1969 to 1996 indicates that only 1 out of the 536 human fatalities in energy-related facilities were attributable to nuclear power generation. The rest were related to natural gas, coal, oil, hydro and liquefied petroleum gas facilities.

Fear also exists for the disposal of nuclear spent fuel. And this fear is also unfounded.

The practice of storing spent fuel has been in existence for many decades. The technology is available to provide safe storage sites on a long-term basis without causing significant impact on the environment or danger to people.

Terrorist attack on a nuclear site may be another reason which causes fear in the general public. The security systems in our nuclear projects are state of the art, and the nuclear reactors are designed to safely shutdown in the case of an emergency. Any fear of terrorist penetrating the security system and stealing nuclear fuel from a nuclear site is baseless.

The fact is that we are significantly lagging behind the developed world in using the nuclear energy and reducing our reliance on natural gas, coal and oil. As a result, our dependence on foreign oil keeps increasing and we have to send our armed forces to safeguard and secure the supplies in the Middle East.

European Nations have substituted the fuel oil consumption in their power plants with nuclear or coal. France has reduced its oil consumption in electricity generation from 45 percent down to 2 percent, Germany from 23 percent to 1.5 percent, Sweden from 19 percent to 3 percent and Belgium from 78 percent to 15 percent.

Italy, on the other hand, has grown, with oil and gas, from 64 percent to 70 percent and started the decommissioning process of its nuclear plants. It is the opinion of the experts that Italy would have not experienced the massive black-out that occurred few weeks ago if the nuclear plants, it currently wants to decommission, were in operation.

The operating history of nuclear plants in this and other countries prove that due to rise in cost of gas and other fuels, it is becoming cheaper to produce electrical energy from nuclear sources. In fact, in most cases it may be the cheapest.

If we want to avoid green house gases, environmental pollution and safely provide power for our civilization, we must change course and reduce dependence on carbon-based fuels. Wind, solar and hydro resources are valid and clean options. And we must continue to develop them.

But these resources are not enough to meet the continuing needs and the future demands of this power-hungry nation. We must redirect our energies to produce energy from nuclear sources.

This is the only long term abundant, reliable, safe, cheap and clean source option available to us. I do not see any alternative that comes close.

Taj Khan of Lodi is a consultant and retired engineering manager for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.



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