Invest in nuclear; don’t forget solar and wind


SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Over the past decade, Iowa has been struggling to advance toward renewable energy — and for good reason. Coal emits myriad harmful waste products, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfuric acids, arsenic, and ash. The burning of coal leads to acid rain, and coal mining damages entire ecosystems.

Coal-generated activity accounts for 55 percent of U.S. electricity production and more than 70 percent of Iowa’s electricity production.

In order to help combat the state’s dependency on coal, a panel of Iowa legislators has voted unanimously to allow for the expansion of nuclear power.

While nuclear power has many advantages over coal, and we welcome its expansion, it is important not to lose sight of the most beneficial, wholly renewable energy technologies: wind and solar power.

The most attractive benefit of nuclear energy is its minimal contribution to climate change. Nuclear energy does not burn any materials, unlike coal or natural-gas plants. Instead, nuclear energy is produced through the fission of uranium — which does not release greenhouse gases.

UI physics Professor Emeritus Edwin Norbeck welcomes a future fueled by nuclear power. “It uses almost no resources,” he told the DI Editorial Board. “Using nuclear reactors, there is enough uranium to supply all the energy we would need for thousands of years. It’s not entirely renewable, like a windmill for instance.”

However little uranium is required for nuclear power, it does require mining, and mining uranium does have consequences. Uranium itself is mildly radioactive, comparable with granite, but large amounts of chemicals are often needed to leach uranium ore from the mined material. The environmental degradation that is typically associated with coal mining applies to uranium mines as well.

The historically predominant criticism of nuclear energy is its safety, but UI engineering Professor Jerald Schnoor believes that this denunciation no longer applies.

“Nuclear energy has proven to be quite safe in the U.S., and with the exception of the three mile island accident, there have been few releases of radioactivity,” he said. “These technologies have been superseded, and most agree that the new generation will be safer than those currently running.”

The Three Mile Island accident occurred in 1979, and although it did not result in any injuries or deaths, financial repercussions neared $1 billion.

Norbeck said nuclear energy’s extensive safety precautions contribute to its relatively high costs, costs that are comparable with coal energy. “Things are over-designed, so it’s incredibly safe. It does cost money to have that.”

The most concerning consequence of nuclear energy is the long-term problems posed by nuclear waste.

“With nuclear waste, we have a bunch of problems right now [such as economics, public acceptability, and a lack of place to put the waste],” Schnoor said. “We don’t have a nuclear-waste-storage program. The Obama administration curtailed our Yucca Mountain storage facility.”

Further complicating the disposal of nuclear waste is the lack of federal support for reprocessing, which separates useful components, such as rhodium, from the waste.

“If we had a new generation of nuclear-power plants, we would have to come up with a method for storing wastes up to 40,000 years until the half-lives have expired on those transuranic elements,” Schnoor said.

Iowa is the second largest producer of wind energy in the U.S., trailing only Texas. A study conducted by the bipartisan Iowa Policy Project found Iowa produced 3,670 megawatts of electricity in the state, enough to power 940,000 homes. The generated power is transferred to a interstate electrical grid, but if all the power was used within the states borders, it could power roughly 75 percent of Iowa’s households. Politicians are taking notice, too: 2010 Secretary of Agricultural candidate Francis Thicke ran on a platform that included broad, small-scale wind production that would, he claimed, give farms and households access to low-cost sustainable energy.

Solar power is also starting to gain momentum nationwide. In a guest opinion for The Daily Iowan, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, cited a report by the iSuppli Corp. that predicts two gigawatts of solar photovoltaic power will be added to U.S. grids in 2011, or enough to power between 1.5 million and 2 million homes.

Schnoor thinks there is plenty of room for immediate improvement. “They are intermittent sources of power, so you have to schedule the loads must more carefully,” he said. “A better grid system is needed for more flexibility. I think that solar and wind could be stored into short-term storage like batteries, for electric or hydroelectric cares, but long-term storage is also needed. As storage capacity increases, we could phase out the coal plants.”

Given the recurrent uncertainties of nuclear energy, and an expected ten-year waiting period for nuclear energy following the initial investment, it makes more sense to invest in two truly sustainable energy resources with more immediate benefits: wind and solar power. By all means, let’s seek to liberate ourselves from coal and oil, but we must make sure to use our resources wisely.

Nuclear is better than conventional coal, but it plays second fiddle to the benefits offered by wind and solar energy.

> Share your thoughts! Click here to write a Letter to the Editor.

comments powered by Disqus

Privacy Policy (8/15/07) | Terms of Use (4/28/08) | Content Submission Agreement (8/23/07) | Copyright Compliance Policy (8/25/07) | RSS Terms of Use

Copyright © The Daily Iowan, All Rights Reserved.