Nuclear energy: Administration must think creatively

Published in South Florida Sun-Sentinel July 12, 2009

 

 

President Obama reminded us earlier this year that the nation needs a transition to renewable energy in the short term: "We need to find safer ways to use nuclear power and store nuclear waste."

But, while Obama has paid lip service to expanding nuclear power and not much else, other countries are busy building nuclear power plants. The United States has not built a plant since the 1979 accident at the nuclear facility at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, there are 160 nuclear power plants under construction in China, India, Russia and Europe. With 20 percent of this country's electrical power provided by the existing 110 nuclear power plants in the United States, our policymakers have decided not to make a decision to go forward with the nuclear option. That is shortsighted.

Congress needs to think more creatively in terms of a stopgap measure to produce nuclear energy until renewable sources like wind, solar and geo-thermal are cost-effective and contribute more than 50 percent to our electrical supply. Currently, renewable sources produce only 3 percent of the U.S. electrical supply. And we are still heavily dependent on imported oil and gas for our energy needs.

We need a different approach, along the lines of what a Lynchburg, Va., company, Babcock and Wilcox, is developing but instead of designing small nuclear units to be placed on land, put them on floating energy platforms.

We should embrace the Babcock and Wilcox concept of developing smaller, scalable, modular designs that are one-tenth the size of existing nuclear reactors, which eliminates the need for large cooling towers and massive amounts of water. But, to speed up the process, we should put these small nuclear reactors on safe, floating platforms. The plan would be similar to the existing technology that has been developed for our nuclear-powered Navy ships.

We need to study the feasibility of building ships or barges that could be used to house nuclear power plants that are capable of delivery to existing power plants or backup sites on our nation's waterways.

This type of project would be beneficial in two ways: It would provide jobs for the American shipbuilding industry, and it would sidestep the heavy costs and environmental delays associated with building new nuclear reactors on land. Having a standard-sized and specific-shaped ship that could be floated on a permanent or semi-permanent site would not be as politically contested as installing a nuclear reactor on land.

Congress would be motivated to fund and support this project if it were seen as a source of electric power for Washington, D.C., and other cities in the event of a national or regional blackout or power failure. In fact, it could be incorporated under homeland security, because we must have power.

Nuclear power doesn't contribute to carbon pollution. And the Europeans are starting to solve the nuclear waste problem. Their methods and ideas need to be tested over here.

We have a national oil reserve system for emergencies. Now we need a national electrical power reserve system, which can be built on ships/barges with small nuclear modules.

President Obama and Congress should consider the floating nuclear power option. It would permit an earlier start toward fixing a potential shortfall in U.S. electrical production.

Lois Lindstrom writes on energy and health issues. Contact her at lois@loislindstrom.com .