Nuclear waste needs answer; so does its fear factor

Friday, July 3, 2009

When the nuclear reactor broke down at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, some residents near there got in their cars and drove away as fast and as far as they could. Some ran out of money and gasoline when they got to Richmond, Va.

I was announcing radio news in Roanoke, Va. at the time and later was the morning newsman at a station in Lynchburg, Va., where there's a big Babcock & Wilcox plant that manufactured the boilers for the Three Mile Island reactor.

So, my ears perked up when U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander mentioned Babcock & Wilcox on Wednesday afternoon in the Marshall County Courthouse Annex where he was meeting with constituents and advocating a resurgence of nuclear power for the generation of electricity in America.

The big, nifty idea is to make many smaller reactors to generate electricity in more locations, instead of relying on a few big plants.

It makes some sense because, actually, less electricity would have to be generated. Big plants are usually far from the users and so the big transmission lines are long and that results in what electric utilities call line loss. There's some resistance to the flow of electricity and it's inefficient to transmit electricity long distances. It's also inefficient when power lines are strung with low-hanging midsections between poles. It makes the wires longer. One might argue for underground power lines, but that's another subject.

The number of nuclear-powered ships and submarines in the U.S. Navy is "classified," according to Alexander, but the point is that smaller nuclear plants seem to be working rather well around the world. And they're being used in France.

So, maybe there's a motive for renewed exploration of nuclear power plants. The good old U.S.A. can do it, too, and better. Our sailors have been doing it for years and they're not glowing in the dark.

There are at least two problems to overcome. One is the fear factor that's fed by a lack of understanding. The other is what's to be done with the nuclear waste.

Good information and education are a start in solving the fear factor. At its core, a nuclear reactor is really nothing more than a way to boil water to turn a steam turbine that generates electricity. More explanations are needed.

As for disposal of nuclear waste, Alexander says that used fuel can be stored safely on-site at the plants for 40-60 years while scientists figure out the best way to reduce its mass and recycle it.

That's a hard sell and, as much as I believe American scientists can solve such problems, there are those who will want the answer before many small plants are built.

There was strong reaction to disposal of radioactive medical waste being buried in the Middle Point Sanitary Landfill at Walter Hill north of Murfreesboro, and questions were raised here about whether such waste is deposited at Cedar Ridge Landfill. (It's not.) Neither landfill is seen as a place for power plant waste. The point is that the reaction to radioactive waste is strong.

A significant debate should be conducted in the United States about nuclear-powered electricity plants. Alexander noted that our nation is helping India and China construct plants, that Japan is building one, and that our president has said Iran has the right to build one, but there hasn't been a plant built here in three decades.

Remarkable.

However, somebody's got to make sure the TV cartoon character Homer Simpson (who's employed at a nuclear power plant) doesn't become a spokesman for either side.