Three Mile Island, PA

Three Mile Island is a nuclear power plant on the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg. 

In his opinion column, “Where solar arrays shouldn’t go is as critical as where they do go” (December 2020), Lee Epstein of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation asserts that we should take care to locate solar energy fields only where they are appropriate.

First, he is absolutely correct. Careful placement of solar energy is a must to avoid damage to wildlife, arable land and the power grid itself. Further, he is correct that wise use of solar, combined with a laser-like focus on energy efficiency, may well be the energy-use transition strategy we need to get us to the next step in clean energy: nuclear. To be precise, new nuclear technologies.

Both solar and wind energy are renewable but have very large land-use footprints. They also have a fundamental flaw: They create energy on the timeline of nature, not the timeline of use. They rarely create the exact energy we need at exactly the time we need it. Energy storage technologies are not going to be available for systemwide use in time to make up for the variability of energy output from these two sources. For these reasons, they rely largely on fossil fuel for a backup. Thus, these renewable technologies may not be the correct way to meet the Chesapeake Bay region’s long-range goals for clean energy.

The term “renewable” energy caught on when there were serious concerns that we would run out of energy, particularly oil. For all practical purposes, that fear has been laid to rest. The larger problem we face today is not lack of energy, but too much atmospheric carbon from the use of energy. We should retire the term renewable and replace it with either “clean” energy or “zero-carbon” energy. By doing so, we open the field to revisit old energy technologies and examine new ones.

It is time we take a renewed look at nuclear power, both the second generation power plants that most folk envision when they think of nuclear and the newer nuclear technologies being tested and deployed today. First, nuclear plants in use today produce 100 to 2,000 times as much energy per acre as solar and wind do. While land use is not the only measure of energy efficiency, it is a measure in which nuclear power has always excelled. New nuclear technologies are even more land efficient.

Second, and to slay the elephant in the room, nuclear is both safer and cleaner than either wind or solar by any relevant measure. Feel free to do your own research on these points. What you find may surprise you.

Most residents of the Chesapeake region have not really revisited nuclear technology in decades. Fear, pretty much overblown fear, of the potential for nuclear plant disaster is what resides in the recesses of their minds. But despite that fear, nuclear power is by far the safest of any of the current energy technologies. By-and-large, though, people really do not accept this. I think the combination of the movie, The China Syndrome, with the meltdown of Three Mile Island is the last thing people really remember about nuclear power in the United States.

But this might be my personal view. The younger folks’ fears of nuclear power are more likely driven by episodes of "The Simpsons." Where else is there any public discussion of nuclear power? Nuclear power does not make news because it routinely and safely produces clean energy.

The last U.S. nuclear meltdown was Three Mile Island, more than 40 years ago.  It resulted in no deaths, and only temporary evacuations. It also produced carbon-free energy for those 40 years. What other energy can make that claim?

Further, Three Mile Island was old technology. The new technologies are safer, cleaner, likely cheaper and offer a variety of other benefits that no current technology can approach. Just to name a few of the side benefits of new nuclear: it can be used to create other clean fuels, create clean water, power industrial production and create medical isotopes currently in desperately low supply.

To start with safety, Benjamin Soon, of Flibe Energy, pointed out the how third– and fourth-generation nuclear power has redefined nuclear safety and created a new measure of energy safety. He uses the term, “probabilistic safety” to describe the state of most older nuclear reactors. Probabilistic safety is when the risk of a worst-case scenario is low, but the worst-case scenario is unacceptable. There has never been a worst-case nuclear disaster in the United States. Yet people still worry there might be.

The new standard for nuclear safety, he argued, should be “deterministic safety.” Deterministic safety means that even the worst-case disaster is acceptable. It simply is not that bad. The plant might have to be shut down for a while, but there would be no possibility of a major explosion or radiation leak. The new nuclear technologies coming on-line today all are based on deterministic safety standards. They are, as they say, “walk-away safe. “

Nuclear already provides most of the clean energy today, both in the United States and around the world. It uses fewer resources than any other power technology, whether fossil-based or “renewable.” It is safer than any other power technology. It is the only power technology where every ounce of its waste is stored and monitored. And, as it turns out, most of what has been considered nuclear waste is now finding a use in more advanced nuclear technologies.

The only real competitor to nuclear is hydroelectric power, and more and more people are realizing how much environmental damage is done by damming rivers. This is especially a problem when, inevitably, silt deposited behind those dams reduces the volumes of water that the reservoirs can hold. Further, in the Chesapeake Bay region there are no more large flowing bodies of water to dam.

Epstein rightly points out that to create a megawatt of solar power you need roughly five to 10 acres of land. For the same amount of land, nuclear can create hundreds and, in some cases thousands, of times more clean energy. Further, new nuclear technologies can almost invariably be placed where old fossil fuel plants are being retired. This means, essentially, no land needs to be taken out of service. This has the added advantage that the power lines are already in place and land for new transmission lines does not have to be acquired.

Further, because nuclear plants can run steadily, little if any new land will be required for energy storage or to augment power lines for sporadic increases and decreases in electrical load. Last, but not least, new nuclear energy technologies promise to be at least 10 times more efficient than those of the current U.S. nuclear fleet. That eliminates the real reason nuclear power has not been building its foothold in the United States: cost. 

In short, it is time to revisit the nuclear option for clean, zero-carbon energy.

Bill Temmink of Joppa, MD, is an environmental activist who began to reconsider nuclear energy three years ago after reading Richard Martin's 2013 book "Superfuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future."

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

(8) comments

tvanpelt

Firstly, I think there are significant assets and liabilities that come with the use of nuclear energy. It is my opinion that the author did a good job covering both sides of the argument. I agree with utilizing nuclear energy responsibly and efficiently. Early in the post, Temmink includes, “Careful placement of solar energy is a must to void damage to wildlife, arable land and the power grid itself”(Temmink). To me, this was an important message to introduce early on and it shows that he acknowledges the dangers of incorrect placement.

It is well known that in the past, nuclear waste management and radiation have postponed the increased use of nuclear energy. Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize winner, attempts to tackle these fears in Yale Environment 360 when he claims, “Studies indicate even the worst possible accident at a nuclear plant is less destructive than other major industrial accidents” (Rhodes). If this is true, then nuclear energy would clearly be the way to go.

That being said, I understand why user Tramme expressed concerns about death and lasting repercussions of the Chernobyl plant. The Chernobyl disaster affected many and does indeed have lingering effects. However, in USA Today, the creator of HBO’s documentary on Chernobyl, Craig Mazin, shares that Chernobyl was a terrible accident, but we need nuclear energy. If anyone is interested in this story, here is the link: Chernobyl. The need for nuclear energy surpasses its mistakes in the past. The technology used in the Chernobyl disaster is now outdated. Safety measures are now taken to ensure a catastrophic event like that does not happen again. Similar to what commentor Bill Haaf mentioned earlier in the discussion, I also think that the risks outweigh the consequences of not switching to nuclear power. He stated that the earth overheating, killing millions of people, destroying the forests, and more, is worth the small chance of an accident at a nuclear plant.

It is my humble opinion after conducting my research that the use of nuclear energy would benefit more than it would harm. Nuclear energy is the cleanest form of energy we have, and it uses fewer resources than other power sources. The author mentions safety precautions being taken and he reminds readers that “There has never been a worst-case nuclear disaster in the United States. Yet people still worry there might be” (Temmink). These fears are rational in my mind, but the reality is that the probability of another situation anything close to Chernobyl happening again is slim to none.

Normgtg

Nuclear waste is the elephant in the world.

Any business plan that does not address this problem will be ignored.

Numberman

Thorium should have been in widespread use already for producing safe nuclear power. As it is laying around in vast quantities from other mining operations, and also source for rare earth elements, we'd gain in resource security. And Thorium doesn't produce hazardous waste. Protected financial interests have blocked Thorium from providing us clean, safe nuclear energy.

apavlak

Public fear of radiation is way over blown. Nobody died at Three Mile Island. Nobody died from the reactor at Fukushima although 15,000 people died from the tidal wave. 60 people died at Chernobyl, 30 from acute radiation and the trauma of the explosion, 30 premature deaths from radiation. Radiation is like sunshine, a little is healthy, too much is dangerous. Before antibiotics low level radiation was used to treat pneumonia. Today trials are underway to use it to treat COVID Acute Respiratory Syndrome with low level radiation, not by killing cells but by stimulating the body's immune system. Regarding waste how long do you think the heavy metals in coal fly ash remains toxic?

bill haaf

Yes as a scientist who has closely followed climate science and risks; i agree that fail safe nuclear is needed to supplement wind & solar & storage. New small modular reactors are fail safe. The risks from these new nuclear reactors and storing waste underground pale in comparison to overheating the earth from burning nat gas and coal that will kill hundreds of millions of humans; destroy global forest ,kill all polar bears; most birds and fish; massive crop failures and evacuations due to huge coastal flooding.

Tramme

You conveniently forgot about the 1986 Chernobyl disaster which had deaths, permanent evacuations and radioactive waste that will last centuries. It's disappointing the Bay Journal would support this opinion, that states (presumably seriously), "The younger folks’ fears of nuclear power are more likely driven by episodes of The Simpsons"

SeanScully

The author did not forget to mention Chernobyl, he did provide a link that discusses the safety of nuclear power compared to all the other main types of power generation. That study discusses the deaths created by Chernobyl as well as the people killed by hydropower. If nuclear power could be created cheaply and safely, would you support it's use?

Normgtg

No.

He did not mention Fukushima either.

Nuclear waste can be used in reactors and batteries. Consider the Persevere Mars Rover.

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