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Nuclear energy is among best bets to keep U.S. running

By Richard Brill

LAST UPDATED: 2:55 a.m. HST, Mar 18, 2011

One ton of natural uranium can produce more than 40 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, the equivalent of burning 16,000 tons of coal or 80,000 barrels of oil.

Since 1982, nuclear energy has been second only to coal as an energy source for production of electricity in the United States. Today more than 100 nuclear power plants produce about 21 percent of all the electricity generated in the U.S., greater than that produced by oil, natural gas and hydroelectric power combined.

Although various new renewable-energy technologies hold promise for the future, coal and nuclear energy are the two sources most capable of meeting the growing electrical needs of the U.S. in the next few decades.

Although there is enough coal in the U.S. to last 250 years, it produces carbon dioxide when burned.

This is not to say there are no risks. Radiation leakage and storage of waste are the two most notable issues, but neither has produced an incident on the scale of oil spills and other accidents at fossil fuel-fired generating plants.

Since the first nuclear power plant opened in 1957, there have been no deaths or injuries in the United States. There has never been a nuclear accident on submarines and aircraft carriers.

The incident at Three Mile Island in 1979 was largely due to human error. It was a serious economic disaster that pointed to the need to keep developing safety and training procedures. But despite the negative publicity, there were no injuries and no off-site contamination. Recent studies of the population near the TMI plant show no change in the normal incidence of cancer.

The 1986 explosion at Chernobyl was due to a combination of multiple operator errors and a reactor design unique to the Soviet Union that did not incorporate any containment structure to prevent the escape of radioactivity.

President Barack Obama's memorandum for the secretary of energy dated Jan. 29, 2010, established the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. To explore these opportunities, the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy has engaged governments, industry and the research community worldwide in the goal of developing nuclear energy systems known as "Generation IV."

The benefits of fourth-generation reactors include nuclear waste that lasts decades instead of millennia, up to 300 times more energy yield from the same amount of nuclear fuel, the ability to consume existing nuclear waste in the production of electricity, and improved operating safety.

It is fairly certain that renewable technologies will not be able to produce enough energy to satisfy even current demands within several generations, or perhaps not at all.

Considering the lifestyle changes that are both necessary and unlikely to reduce energy needs worldwide, it seems inevitable at this point that nuclear energy will play an increasing role. Whether it is coal, solar, wind, wave, tide or nuclear energy that powers future civilization, each comes with its own risks and benefits.

Richard Brill is a professor of science at Honolulu Community College. E-mail questions and comments to

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