Today, let's talk about nuclear power in America. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Philip Abelson, retired editor of
Science magazine, returns to write a guest
editorial on nuclear power . He
documents America's decline in that field. We so abhor
the idea of nuclear weapons that we've let the nuclear
generation of electricity drift out of focus. But power
and weapons are not the same thing.
America has 110 nuclear power plants. They generate 20
percent of our energy. Take that away and we'd be in deep
trouble. At the same time, we haven't authorized a new
one since 1986. Why?
The 1979 Three-Mile-Island incident served as a focal
point for rising anti-nuclear sentiment. Shortly before
that I did some work for the power industry. And I
watched the federal regulation of nuclear power growing
more and more bizarre. For example:
In the mid-70s someone in government asked if a tornado
could pick up a telephone pole and hurl it, like a spear,
at a nuclear plant. So Sandia Lab shot poles at concrete
walls. To be safe, they made them much larger than real
telephone poles and launched them at almost twice the
highest wind-speed of any real tornado. In the end we
were assured reactors could withstand even that assault.
By the 1980s, federal regulations were running nuclear
costs skyward. Red tape extended the time required to
build a plant to ten years. Finally, the industry could
no longer make money with nuclear power. They quit
building plants and they've quit developing the
technology. The crowning irony is, as engineers focused
their energy entirely on satisfying regulations, they
abandoned all thought of inventing safer nuclear power.
Now the mantle has passed to Europe and Asia. A third of
Japan's power is nuclear. Korea and Taiwan are rapidly
building reactors. So's China. Those new plants are more
efficient, more reliable and much safer than our
30-year-old reactors. And as Europe and Asia modernize,
we regress. In 1978, 80 U.S. universities taught nuclear
engineering. Now we're down to 35. Our expertise is
drying up along with the industry itself.
Environmental irresponsibility and low costs have driven
us back to cheap fossil fuel systems. They pose terrible
toxic waste disposal problems and they're devastating to
the ecology. Meanwhile, environmental tunnel-vision has
demonized nuclear power -- equated it to Chernobyl. But
the primitive, badly-built Chernobyl reactor had little
to do with modern reactors.
And what about renewable energy -- from the wind, sun,
and tides? Of course, similar shortsightedness has kept
us from developing that as develop it we must. Those
systems still have far to go. The new generation of
nuclear power plants exists today. They do less damage
than fossil fuel plants and they're even to the point
where they can produce cheaper power.
We'll catch on soon enough. But then we'll find ourselves
buying quality off-the-shelf reactors -- from Japan and
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.